Time for Congress to make a down payment to prevent future pandemic tragedies

Time for Congress to make a down payment to prevent future pandemic tragedies
© Greg Nash

Earlier this month, the Biden administration released the Pandemic Preparedness Plan that would, finally, stand up a sustained and centrally managed national effort to protect the country against future pandemics. 

But like the Obama-era “pandemic playbook” before it, this current plan won’t help the country if it’s left to sit on a shelf to gather dust. One in every 500 Americans has died from COVID-19. The overwhelming losses brought about by this pandemic should galvanize members of Congress to do everything in their power to prevent a global pandemic like COVID-19, or worse, from happening again. If not now, when?

If funded by Congress and implemented, this plan will deliver tangible national tools and capabilities that we need to save lives, jobs and money when we inevitably face future dangerous outbreaks. The pandemic defenses included in the plan are each important and indeed indispensable, such as a reliable ability to rapidly produce and distribute effective diagnostic tests, vaccines and therapeutics for unknown viral threats. Technologies to help detect and track the course of outbreaks with increased fidelity so that we can more effectively respond. A robust and technically equipped public health system to capably execute its leading role in protecting all of us, including vulnerable Americans, from dangerous diseases. A sufficient and dependable supply of effective masks and medical supplies, as well as cost-effective methods for improving indoor air quality to minimize unnecessary disruptions of school, religious services and workplaces. 

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Even amid the political entrenchment we’ve all witnessed during this pandemic, few would contest that these capabilities are the no-frills elements of a comprehensive pandemic defense.

When the United States has felt at risk in the past — whether by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union during the Cold War, 9/11 terrorists, or North Korean saber-rattling — our country has enjoyed the almost unparalleled ability to make the necessary investments in defense to keep Americans safe. Now is the time for Congress to provide the means necessary to similarly bolster our defenses against catastrophic pandemics. If not now, when?

In August, SARS CoV-2 became the number one cause of death in the U.S. It has claimed over 660,000 U.S. lives and it’s not done with us yet. Within days, the American death toll from COVID-19 will exceed the estimated 675,000 lives lost in the U.S. during the 1918 pandemic influenza. By the beginning of December, COVID-19 deaths could climb to over 750,000. And, on top of that, the economic toll on the nation is no less mind-boggling with an estimated loss of $16 trillion.

The administration’s price tag for its comprehensive preparedness plan is $65 billion over a decade. Compared to the $170 billion per year devoted to preventing terrorism or the $20 billion per year that the U.S. spends on missile defense, preparing to better weather a catastrophic pandemic (which we know will come for us again) is a downright bargain. The $65 billion investment would reduce the risk of not only naturally occurring pandemics, but also the risks posed by high-consequence laboratory accidents involving pandemic pathogens and maliciously deployed biological weapons. These investments will protect us. 

The good news is that the United States is not starting from scratch. Thanks to the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act passed in 2006 and faithfully reauthorized since the country has the basic preparedness programs and structures in place that will serve as a solid foundation for the ambitious and integrated pandemic defense system set forth in the pandemic preparedness plan.

The administration has clearly indicated that $15 billion in the budget reconciliation bill would, for now, be an adequate down payment towards the $65 billion pandemic preparedness plan. We need the down payment. The House Energy and Commerce Committee agreed and they took the first vital step by including $16 billion for pandemic preparedness in their bill thanks to the leadership of Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Anna EshooAnna Georges EshooHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — US cracks down on tools for foreign hacking House passes bills to secure telecommunications infrastructure Hillicon Valley — Presented by LookingGlass — Congress makes technology policy moves MORE (D-Calif.). Recent public polling demonstrates that the American people expect nothing less.

The debate will move to the Senate, where a figure of only up to $8 billion for pandemic preparedness is being discussed in closed-door meetings. Over the past 18 months, Congress made much-needed emergency funding available for COVID-19 crisis response. Now Congress has an opportunity to be proactive and fund the defenses necessary to protect Americans from future pandemic threats by providing the seed money needed to start implementing the pandemic preparedness plan. If not now, when? 

Securing $16 billion for pandemic preparedness in the Senate budget reconciliation package would demonstrate that Congress understands the pandemic threat we’re facing and the ones in our future and is prepared to bring American ingenuity and resources to bear to meaningfully reduce the threat, if not eliminate it altogether.

Anita Cicero, JD, is deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a Senior Scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a lawyer with 30 years of experience.