After stepping away from the podium on Inauguration Day, President Biden got to work on fulfilling campaign promises, including re-establishing a productive working relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO), which is essential amid the deadliest pandemic in the last century. The president also made commitments to stopping a broad range of existential threats that the US faces, including future biothreats and climate change, the latter of which my colleagues at the Center for Climate and Security highlighted this week.
In July, then-candidate Biden wrote, “Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health. On my first day as President, I will rejoin the [WHO] and restore our leadership on the world stage.”In line with this commitment, President Biden signed directives to halt the US’s WHO withdrawal, which was in progress and set to be completed later this year.
A refresh in the US-WHO relationship was needed because of President Trump’s decision to first reduce WHO funding in April 2020, and then “terminate” the US’s relationship with the international organization in May. The WHO had come under criticism – and not just from the Trump Administration – for its COVID-19 response. Critics called the organization too trusting of the Chinese government’s reporting on the pandemic, and too slow to declare a global health emergency, which could have pushed the world towards more serious measures earlier. The WHO declared an emergency only after thousands of cases were confirmed in China and the virus had spread across the world, including to the US. That is not, however, an argument for disengagement with the organization, especially in the middle of an ongoing pandemic. Rather, it’s an argument for engaging even more.
After President Biden’s directives on re-engaging with the WHO, the president’s Chief Medical Adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, spoke at the WHO Executive Board meeting to signal a reverse in the US’s policy, pledging continued membership and restoring US funding and staffing to the organization.These steps show that President Biden is prioritizing the pandemic over politics, setting aside disagreements about the handling of the pandemic, and pushes for reform, until after the crisis has passed. It is a welcome change.
The actions the U.S. has taken on the WHO are just a few of many against COVID-19 in the first week of the new administration. President Biden also restored the White House National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, originally established by the Obama-Biden administration, and appointed Beth Cameron, who authored the NSC’s original pandemic playbook, to lead it. President Biden also published a National Strategy for COVID-19 Response. The strategy directs the leveraging of all available authorities to scale production of mRNA vaccines, which – the document notes – “has implications for this pandemic as well as for the future [ones], given the expected central role of mRNA vaccines in responding to future epidemics.” This is a high potential area for Department of Defense research and development.
Additionally, in an executive order, President Biden directed the creation of a pandemic testing board tasked with proposing reforms to expand genomic sequencing to “improve the effectiveness and speed of the federal government’s response to future pandemics and other biological emergencies”. Sequencing is important for tracking mutations of SARS-CoV-2 and also as a fundamental technology for a versatile early detection and warning system for biothreats.
Taken together, these actions highlight that President Biden is taking a comprehensive view of biothreats: both ameliorating the effects of COVID-19 now, while planning for the next infectious disease, whether natural or engineered, with pandemic potential. That’s the right approach. Now comes the hard work of implementation.