The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of American life – from the economy to education to the tragedy of nearly 1 million deaths. The U.S. Government has the ability and an obligation to not only end the COVID-19 pandemic, but to do everything we can do to prevent the disruption, economic damage, and suffering caused by a future pandemic.
When the H1N1 health emergency hit we were able to tap into the national stockpile but because of short sightedness we didn’t fill the stockpile back up. There is no question lives were lost in COVID because of this. We cannot allow that to happen again. We must refill the stockpile and expand it for the next pandemic.
We also must invest more in research of likely pathogens, and developing prototype vaccines that will allow for rapid development and deployment of life-saving vaccines the next time a highly transmissible virus takes hold.
It also means enhancing our ability to review and assess biosecurity risks. We should be treating research labs that deal with pathogens with the same level of caution that we apply to nuclear material and airline safety. The work done here is incredibly important but one only has to look to the influenza A epidemic of 1977 or the more than 1,000 incidents between 2008 and 2012 to see that our current oversight system is simply insufficient.
We must ensure independent oversight of labs conducting dual-use research of concern and creating consequences for noncompliance with safety and security protocols. The safety oversight of this work should be controlled by those concerned with preventing the next pandemic, rather than by the scientist funding this important research. That is why such supervision should be moved away from the NIH and to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.
We can save lives and prevent potentially trillions of dollars in economic losses by planning for the next pandemic, by incorporating air filtration, ventilation, and sterilization mechanisms into building codes – especially for our schools, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and transit systems. Just as sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and maximum occupancy requirements for public buildings have made catastrophic building fires a thing of the past in the United States, we can implement changes that make airborne pathogens like SARS-COV-2 less damaging and harmful to our families and our communities.