Bipartisan senators unveil bill to improve pandemic preparedness

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) makes an opening statement during a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Jan. 11, 2022.
Greg Nash

The bipartisan leaders of the Senate Health Committee on Tuesday released a proposal for wide-ranging legislation aimed at improving the U.S. preparedness for pandemics after the many shortcomings in the response to COVID-19.  

The discussion draft from Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) includes proposals on topics such as improving data collection, speeding up the development of vaccines and treatments, and improving public health communication.  

One of the most prominent proposals is to create a task force modeled on the 9/11 Commission to examine the U.S. response to COVID-19 as well as the controversial subject of the origins of the pandemic, which some have said could have resulted from a lab leak in China. An interim report would be required within 180 days, and a final report would be required within a year.  

“After everything our nation has been through these past two years, we owe it to everyone who worked so hard to get us through this crisis to take every step we can to make sure we are never in this situation again, and that’s what this bill will help us get done,” Murray said in a statement.  

The measure would not directly provide new funding for pandemic preparedness, though it would authorize some programs that could be funded as part of the annual appropriations process.  

Advocates have been pushing hard for more funding for pandemic preparedness. There are other avenues, such as President Biden’s Build Back Better package, but funding for pandemics there was slashed from the initial proposal of $30 billion, and the future of that package overall remains in doubt. 

The annual government funding process also could provide some opportunities.  

Burr, in particular, has been sharply critical of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) communication during COVID-19, calling it muddled.  

The measure would include changes such as making the CDC director a Senate-confirmed position and requiring the agency to develop a strategic plan every four years.  

“The American people have stopped listening to the CDC because of their confusing and conflicting guidance. Justifiably so,” Burr said. “The CDC reforms in this draft are just the beginning of what is needed.” 

Other measures include creating an advisory committee on public health communication, authorizing grants for genomic sequencing, directing support for “manufacturing surge capacity” for vaccines and treatments, and allowing the secretary of Health and Human Services to directly appoint up to 250 people during a public health emergency.  

The senators ask for feedback by Feb. 4 and say committee markup of the bill will happen “in the coming weeks.” 

Tags Centers for Disease and Prevention Joe Biden pandemic origin pandemic preparedness Patty Murray Richard Burr

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