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What’s next? When it comes to infectious disease, time is not on our side

Woman looks out the window with a mask for coronavirus on

In the fictional White House of the NBC drama The West Wing, President Bartlet often revealed his frustration when his staff got stuck focusing only on current crises, and forced his staff to pick up the pace and look to the future with the question, What’s next?

The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense was established in 2014 to comprehensively assess the state of U.S. biodefense efforts and make recommendations to strengthen the Nation’s ability to defend against infectious diseases and bioterrorists.

The commission is bipartisan and small, with three Republicans and three Democrats as members. We are honored to serve as co-chairs. The other members are former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, former Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Advisor Lisa Monaco, former Representative Jim Greenwood, and former Homeland Security Advisor Ken Wainstein.

After a year of investigation we issued our foundational report in 2015, National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts. We concluded that America was not prepared for a large-scale biological event, and recommended changes to U.S. policy and law to strengthen national biodefense, including increasing resource investments. Our recommendations addressed the leadership, coordination, collaboration and innovation needed to reduce catastrophic biological risk to the nation.

In September 2018, the White House developed and released a National Biodefense Strategy, which was the third recommendation from our Blueprint. In February 2020, President Trump put Vice President Pence in charge of national biodefense against COVID-19, in keeping with our first recommendation in the Blueprint. And while Congress, with bipartisan support, addressed many of our recommendations in statute, we regret that too few were implemented or funded. As a result, when COVID-19 struck this year, America was about as unprepared as when we issued our baseline report in 2015.

Even though we are still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not too soon to ask and get ready for what’s next.

COVID-19 will not be the last biological crisis this nation faces. In addition to the potential resurgence of COVID-19 cases this fall, other naturally occurring diseases continue to mutate and work their way around the world, and both state- and non-state actors continue to invest in biological weapons programs that we must assume will come to fruition and — sooner or later — be used.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Congress established the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, and nearly three years after the attacks, in July 2004, the 9/11 Commission issued its final superb report. Whether naturally occurring or human generated, the experts say that another biological event will strike our country and the world much sooner, possibly within a year. We can’t wait three years. 

Finance, communication, transportation and trade are all global. Disease, too, is an actor in the global arena. In this age of globalized disease, we must respond to the current crisis while simultaneously asking what’s next? 

We must provide answers in months, not years.

The administration and Congress will undoubtedly investigate. But they do not need to start from scratch. Our bipartisan Commission has been at this for more than five years. We stand ready to support and inform their investigations immediately and in any way we can. As a natural extension of our work, we are already examining COVID-19 in the context of overall U.S. biodefense and looking to the future, at the ability of our nation to deal with the biological events that will most certainly affect our public health, our economy and our way of life.

One thing is clear. COVID-19 and other diseases ravage our country and world without regard for partisan politics. Whoever is tasked with assessing pandemic prevention, preparedness, surveillance, response, recovery and mitigation must be bipartisan and able to assess the situation and produce recommendations quickly. When it comes to infectious disease, time is not on our side.

We can no longer only ask, “What now?” We must ask, “What’s next?

Joe Lieberman is a former U.S. Senator. Tom Ridge was the 43rd governor of Pennsylvania and first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security. Together they co-chair the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.

Tags Biodefense Biological warfare Bioterrorism Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Pandemic pandemic preparedness

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