The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is revealing major gaps in national readiness to prepare for, respond to, and recover from biological threats, requiring that decision makers consider improved policies, programs, and technologies to ramp up the federal defense, experts said during the Sept. 24 virtual meeting of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.
Time is of the essence, said former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, co-chairman of the commission, because the next pandemic is coming and it may be worse than COVID-19 as the risk of natural and human-generated threats continue to increase in number and speed.
The commission held its Thursday meeting to help inform its newly launched Apollo Program for Biodefense, which will examine the nation’s track record with other successful large-scale projects, look at how the country is dealing with COVID-19 and other ongoing outbreaks such as Ebola, and develop a national roadmap to tackle such biological challenges.
“Effective biodefense depends on science and technology. We must engage with national and international partners in the government, academia, industry, and other areas of the private sector to take biological threats off the table,” Lieberman said. “We need innovation — the sort of innovation that helps us solve difficult problems posed by biological threats like COVID-19.”
Already there are lessons to be learned about what the national and international responses have been to the pandemic, and to devise efficient and effective strategies for preparedness and response, experts told the commission.
“We have learned that the Strategic National Stockpile was not prepared to deal with this pandemic for this amount of time,” said U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks (R-IN), one of seven female witnesses who offered their insight to the commission. “We now have to think differently… about how we need to reform the stockpile.”
For instance, Brooks said the pandemic has woken lawmakers to America’s reliance on China and other foreign supply chains and the need to bring manufacturing of personal protective equipment (PPE) back to the United States. At the same time, Brooks said Congress must ask more questions now about what is in the stockpile and what is needed to fill it prior to another pandemic. And federal funding should be increased to ramp up preparation and response for all CBRNs and pandemics, she said.
“We still have much to learn,” said Brooks.
U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) agreed, saying the Strategic National Stockpile was “ill-prepared for COVID,” with much of it’s PPE expired and out of date. There also wasn’t a clear plan for how to distribute PPE to the states, allowing some to have larger stockpiles while most struggled without sufficient stock, in turn creating a chaotic response that she said ended up looking like the states were locked in a rugby scrum trying to get PPE.
“To say this was frustrating… is a grave understatement,” said DeGette, who now is worried about forthcoming coronavirus vaccines. “If we had this lack of coordination for our national plan around COVID, I’m deeply concerned about the plan for the approval and distribution of a vaccine,” she said.
Both lawmakers also recommended to the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense that the federal government’s role needs to be made clearer, not only with guidelines but regarding training and exercises.
For instance, Brooks suggested more tabletop exercises be held to help stakeholders understand how a particular situation will unfold and how to prepare and respond. And the members agreed it was a good idea to have the U.S. vice president head up the effort, although they said that plan should have been implemented sooner during COVID-19. Such power for the vice president also needs to be institutionalized, DeGette said. “This crisis gives us a great opportunity to do this going forward.”
Additionally, Brooks and DeGette recommended that a group similar to the 9-11 Commission be authorized as soon as possible.
The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States — also known as the 9-11 Commission — was an independent, bipartisan commission created in 2002 by congressional legislation and the signature of President George W. Bush that was chartered to prepare a complete account of the circumstances surrounding the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks. The commission also was mandated to provide recommendations to guard against future attacks. It closed in 2004.
“Not many people have paid attention to pandemics,” said Brooks, “but now every member of Congress has to deal with it.”
Another idea suggested by panelists during the commission’s meeting is to establish an international pandemic forecasting entity similar to the National Weather Service at the U.S. Commerce Department.
“It would be fantastic to have something like this,” said Nita Madhav, CEO and president at San Francisco-based Metabiota, which partners with industry and governments worldwide to build resilience to epidemics toward protecting global public health. A pandemic forecasting organization, she said, could provide threat warnings by looking at specific geographical areas and data to predict epidemics and pandemics.
“They are systemic risks and require social scientists, economists, biologists, and many others to understand the risks and vulnerabilities to a population,” Madhav said, adding that such a program could be based in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or its Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), “or maybe a new entity. There are a lot of ways for this to be done.”
“We need a national, data-driven emerging infectious disease watch force,” said Sohini Ramachandran, an associate biology professor and director of graduate studies at the Center for Computational Molecular Biology, and associate professor of computer science at Brown University. “Surveillance is the key to preventing future pandemics.”
Madhav also said that early action is needed. “It’s time to break out of the panic and neglect modes,” she said. “We must embrace a preparedness mindset… to build global resiliency.”
Kavita Berger, director of the Board on Life Sciences at the National Academies of Sciences, testified that multidisciplinary research is also critical for better preparedness and response. She provided several examples to illustrate that the nation has “so many fields and disciplines that are very actively working across the entire biodefense landscape to provide capabilities that would hopefully help us better respond to a biological event, whether natural or man-made.”
Another priority must be the ability of the nation to better leverage computational tools, advanced technologies like AI, and other technological innovations, said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, co-chairman of the commission. “We need to support them and do everything possible to ensure that we can combat anything that nature, terrorists, and nation-states throw at us,” Ridge said.
Lieberman added that strong leadership also is imperative. “Because of what we’re experiencing now, we know more than ever that the country needs a strong, centralized leadership of our biodefense enterprise,” he said. “It just has not been there. We need efficient, effective coordination … and we need mutually beneficial cooperation between the public and private sector and non-governmental organizations to reduce catastrophic, biological risk, and damage.
“We also need more coordinated innovation to help us solve difficult problems posed by biological threats and infectious disease outbreaks like COVID-19,” Lieberman said.