A bipartisan group of retired public officials is begging Congress to finally get serious on preventing pandemics.
The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a new report this morning urging policymakers to fund, and the executive branch to implement, what it calls the Apollo Program for Biodefense, a $100 billion, 10-year effort that would prepare the nation to meet any future viral threat head-on. The new report, called The Athena Agenda (they like Greek gods), takes the framework the Apollo report outlined and provides more detail on how to fund and achieve it. Commission deputy director Ambika Bumb, a medical scientist who served in the Biden White House and Trump State Department, told me that the new report aims to put the recommendations in terms that “Congress can directly take and put in legislation.”
Among other priorities, the plan includes funding for: creating vaccine candidates for each of the 26 families of viruses known to infect humans; developing antiviral medications that can work against a broad spectrum of viruses; building out manufacturing capacity for vaccines, antivirals, tests, and other countermeasures; deploying genomic sequencing as a way to track outbreaks; developing broadly useful diagnostic technologies and better regulatory processes for approving and disseminating plentiful rapid tests; and improving security in laboratories dealing with dangerous viruses.
The White House, to its credit, has already proposed funding around this level. Most recently, in its 2023 budget proposal, the Biden administration asked for $88.2 billion in funding over five years on pandemic preparedness. That includes $40 billion for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services to “invest in advanced development and manufacturing of countermeasures for high priority threats and viral families, including vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, and personal protective equipment (PPE),” as well as $12.1 billion in research funding for the National Institutes of Health for vaccine, therapeutics, and diagnostics development.
Bumb notes that the Biden proposal actually drew on the original Apollo plan put out by the bipartisan commission. That’s part of why the new commission report is so notable: This is a group that’s capable of driving policymaking at high levels.
That said, Congress has yet to appropriate money at the commission’s desired level to prevent the next pandemic. It’s barely interested in further funding response to the current, ongoing pandemic, which is still killing hundreds of Americans a day. A group of senators recently cut a deal for $10 billion to fund Covid-19 response, after slashing funding the White House wanted to help fight the pandemic abroad — only to have Republicans block the deal on the Senate floor over separate immigration concerns. Even if the funding eventually passes, it’ll have to wait until after the Easter recess ends on April 22.
The commission members are desperate for Congress to act
The biodefense commission is a bipartisan group that has existed since 2014 and aims to “provide for a comprehensive assessment of the state of US biodefense efforts, and to issue recommendations that will foster change.” Its initial report in 2015 called for heavy investment to “prevent, deter, prepare for, detect, respond to, attribute, recover from, and mitigate biological incidents.” That call was obviously not heeded in time for the Covid-19 pandemic.
The group is chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Pennsylvania governor and Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge. The other members include former Congress member and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala; former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle; former Reps. Susan Brooks and James Greenwood; former FDA commissioner Peggy Hamburg; and former Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein.
This is not some group of big-spending left-wing ideologues. It’s a collection of old-fashioned moderates, one of whom (Lieberman) is perhaps most famous for frustrating Democratic spending ambitions on health care. Theirs is a dying breed given the extent of partisan polarization in 2022.
We at Vox argued for a number of these measures in our recent series, Pandemic-Proof. And the commission notes that had the plan been in place before Covid-19 (for instance, after the commission’s initial 2015 report), the US response to the pandemic would’ve been vastly improved. “Had we created a vaccine for SARS-CoV-1,” the virus that caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, “we could have produced a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2,” which causes Covid-19, “even faster,” they write.
“This is not about some theoretical future threat only,” Bumb told me. It might have been theoretical when the commission first issued its 2015 report, but after Covid-19, the consequences of inaction should be incredibly vivid.
This Apollo program pales next to the budget of the original Apollo project aimed at putting a man on the Moon. That effort, the commission estimates, cost roughly $280 billion in today’s dollars; the International Space Station cost about $255 billion.
The federal government can make major investments like this when it wants to. The question when it comes to pandemic prevention is, does it want to?