By: Dr. Yong-Bee Lim and Christine Parthemore
As we enter our second year and fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are very real numbers that shed some light on the devastation that this biological event has wrought on the world. There have been over 220 million global cases of COVID-19, including over 4.5 million deaths, as of September 7, 2021 according to the World Health Organization. In the United States alone, there have been nearly 40 million cases (nearly 20% of all global COVID cases) and over 644,000 deaths (over 14% of all global COVID deaths) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These numbers alone do not indicate the harm that future global pandemics may cause — pandemics that may equal or even exceed the devastation of COVID-19. COVID continues to cost the United States and the global community billions to trillions of dollars in economic output. The pandemic has also contributed to the loss of tens of millions of jobs world-wide, and has disproportionately affected historically-vulnerable populations such as women and children, and has exacerbated poverty and inequality across the globe. Misinformation and disinformation campaigns have also contributed significantly to the political polarization of COVID-19 in countries like the United States: an effect that is having corrosive effects on the very foundation of U.S. democracy.
On September 3, 2021, the Biden administration unveiled its plan to address future pandemic threats. This plan, drafted by President Biden’s science adviser and the 11th Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Dr. Eric Lander, consists of a $65 billion proposal that Lander likened to the ambitious goals and results of the Apollo space program in the 1960’s.
This $65 billion proposal, an investment meant to be administered over 7 – 10 years, focuses on overhauling pandemic preparedness in the United States in five main areas, which include:
- Transforming Medical Defenses: New technological breakthroughs are allowing technically-advanced countries such as the United States to develop safe, accurate, and effective vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics faster than ever. Lander proposed $41 billion to accelerate and increase the nation’s medical capabilities to address future pandemics.
- Ensuring Situational Awareness: Harnessing cutting-edge sequencing and detection technologies are key to establish both an effective early warning system for detecting pandemic-potential pathogens, as well as real-time monitoring capabilities in the event an outbreak occurs. Lander proposed $5.4 billion goes towards expanding early warning system sampling, data collection, and aggregation, as well as enhancing real-time monitoring through effective tracking, and forecasting of virus spread and evolution during an outbreak.
- Strengthening Public Health Systems: COVID-19 highlighted significant gaps in public health preparedness and response, as well as pushed our public health facilities and personnel to the breaking point. Lander proposed $9.3 billion goes towards filling these gaps with having a robust public health capacity and workforce, prioritizing the health and well-being of vulnerable communities, and developing the infrastructure and financing necessary to create local and international capacities to address pandemic preparedness around the globe.
- Building Core Capabilities: COVID-19 also highlighted the fragility of supply chains and access to vital resources like personal protective equipment. It also showed how biological threats have historically been downplayed compared to other national security priorities. To ameliorate these issues, Lander proposed $8.8 billion for strengthening domestic capabilities to develop and produce innovative personal protective equipment and robust supply chains for vital reagents and supplies, and address existing challenges related to regulatory hurdles that impact medical device approval. There would also be more emphasis on the need to better understand the biosafety, biosecurity, and catastrophic biological threats that we face.
- Managing the Mission: Every bold mission requires leadership and situational awareness to succeed. This is especially true for complex missions like building the infrastructure, capabilities, and capacity to address future pandemic threats. Lander therefore proposed that $0.8 billion of the pandemic preparedness plan goes towards a Department of Health and Human Services-led Mission Control: a centralized unit that pulls HHS and other interagency expertise to act as a planning, coordinating, and implementation body for pandemic preparedness.
CSR has analyzed how to implement these kinds of options and found broad agreement among top public and private sector science, technical, and policy experts that this proposed plan is both feasible and the right vision.
As the American Pandemic Preparedness document emphasizes, “the current pandemic has illustrated the seriousness of biological threats.” Further, biological threats are increasing, “whether naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate, and the likelihood of a catastrophic biological event is similarly increasing.” This document deliberately arrives at the conclusion that, much like the robust national defense capabilities we have to address missiles, cyberattacks and terrorism, we also need “robust national biodefense capabilities that will provide us with broad and deep protection against biological threats ranging from the ongoing and increasing risk of pandemic disease, to the possibility of laboratory accidents and the deliberate use of bioweapons.”
Therefore, building a robust pandemic preparedness infrastructure not only helps address natural threats, but also helps address key gaps ranging from accidental releases from biological research facilities to the deliberate acquisition, research, development, and deployment of biological weapons. This bold plan, by also focusing on accelerating and innovating biosafety and biosecurity practices and assessments, is working towards an ambitious and admirable goal: “to prevent laboratory accidents and deter bioweapons development.” By building a robust pandemic preparedness system that also leverages new technologies that enable rapid detection, characterization, response, and attribution, this vision of biological deterrence becomes even more likely: a vision of making bioweapons obsolete that CSR shares with this pandemic preparedness plan.
A bold and innovative re-envisioning of how the United States and the global community address pandemic threats is long overdue. In a world where pandemics are expected to emerge with greater frequency, it is clear that the United States. and the world need a fully-functioning early-warning system more than ever before. In the event that an outbreak does occur, the United States has numerous resources in agencies like the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories, the Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction and the Chem-Bio Defense Programs, and the Department of State to address biological threats to civilians, our servicemembers, and our international partners. Finally, it is necessary to harness bold and innovative ways to leverage the unique expertise, capacities, and capabilities across public and private sectors, including the emergent industries associated with the bioeconomy, to build the rapid medical-countermeasure enterprise we will need to face the biological threats of the future.