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Out-innovating the next COVID-19 variant … and the next pandemic

In an ideal world, COVID-19 would be a thing of the past, and another pandemic would be a distant possibility. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world, and there is no way to predict when the next dangerous COVID-19 variant or pandemic will emerge. Case in point: monkeypox. We need to be ready. Given the risks to the U.S. of another variant or pandemic, it is in the nation’s best interest to accelerate our research and development today. As members of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, we know all too well the importance of being prepared for biological threats. We lived through an anthrax attack that changed our understanding of the steps needed to be prepared for future threats and have been examining our nation’s ability to defend against biological threats for seven years. One thing is clear: Preparedness requires significant and sustained investment in research and development.

This lesson has never been clearer than today. There may be no breathing room between Omicron — and now its BA.2 subvariant — and the next dangerous COVID-19 variant, or between COVID-19 and the next pandemic. In fact, they may occur simultaneously. If the United States does not treat these threats as certainties and invest proactively in research and development, we will continuously play catch-up. Waiting for disaster to strike before taking action once again will leave our country open to needless deaths and disability, necessitate enormous sums of emergency spending, and result in economic chaos disastrous to Americans and businesses small and large across the nation. In our country alone, the pandemic has taken more than 1 million lives. Globally, the death toll to date is 6.12 million. And up to 23 million Americans infected with SARS-CoV-2 have experienced “Long COVID,” which can result in debilitating symptoms as serious as heart or kidney failure that persist long after the infection subsides.

As devastating as COVID-19 has been for our nation and the world, the next pandemic could be even worse. What is certain is that the risk of pandemics is growing. According to a study by the Duke University Global Health Institute, “Based on the increasing rate at which novel pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 have broken loose in human populations in the past 50 years… the probability of novel disease outbreaks will likely grow three-fold in the next few decades.”

Inaction in the face of this clear threat poses a grave national security risk to our country. Congress must immediately take steps to prioritize research and development. Important progress has been made toward a vaccine effective against numerous COVID-19 variants. With further work, this vaccine would not only be effective against present and future COVID-19 variants but would also offer protection against future threats from the larger viral family to which COVID-19 belongs. In our recent report, Athena Agenda: Advancing the Apollo Program for Biodefense, we urged Congress to go even further and develop at least one vaccine candidate for each of the 26 viral families that infect humans. Congress should also invest in research to develop important new treatments to mitigate symptoms and prevent severe disease outcomes from COVID-19 and other high-priority viruses, as well as develop needle-free methods for delivering vaccines and other medicines, among other technology priorities.

The president and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have an opportunity to come together in the coming weeks to reinvigorate research and development to address COVID-19, eliminate dangerous gaps in what we know about other pandemic threats, and develop preemptive, diagnostic, and treatment countermeasures. With $10 billion every year for ten years, an Apollo Program for Biodefense could eliminate the threat of pandemics entirely.

The last two years have proven that tremendous scientific achievements are possible given sufficient funding and prioritization. Our nation has the power to prevent further human suffering and economic chaos. Now is the time to act, before we find ourselves yet again at the mercy of another natural, manmade, or accidental biological disaster.

Daschle served in the Senate from 1987 to 2005 and as Senate majority leader from 2001 to 2003. Ridge served as governor of Pennsylvania and Homeland Security secretary. Both serve on the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.

Tags COVID-19 monkeypox Pandemic

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