COVID-19 has shown us the best and worst of our nation’s health infrastructure.
We witnessed firsthand the power of science. Scientists within the life sciences sector spared no time in working to discover groundbreaking vaccines and treatments to protect the public.
We also saw some serious flaws within our health systems that limited our ability to respond quickly to the novel coronavirus, which no doubt could have saved more lives and limited the rapid spread of variants.
Two years into this pandemic, it’s time to reflect on successes, mistakes, and lessons learned to better prepare for future health threats.
Thankfully, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee will convene Wednesday to discuss a bill aimed at building a better plan for addressing current and future viral health threats.
The bipartisan piece of legislation – the PREVENT Pandemics Act – is a solid first step in improving pandemic preparedness. However, there are a handful of actions lawmakers should consider ahead of the meeting to strengthen the PREVENT Pandemics Act and ensure we are adequately prepared for future health crises.
As written, the PREVENT Pandemic Act has a solid foundation. The bill would modernize public health data, improve communication among federal, state, and local health officials, and invest in emergency medical services, among other actions.
These steps are critical to prepare us to address future pandemics. And it’s encouraging that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle recognize the importance of being proactive when it comes to public health emergencies to save lives. With this goal in mind, the Senators who make up the HELP committee should consider more aggressive measures to strengthen our ability to more rapidly develop medical countermeasures.
For starters, we know from experience that our best defense against pandemics is a robustly funded biodefense research budget. That’s why we should drastically increase investments in infectious disease research and drug development.
Leveraging the successes of Operation Warp Speed (OWS) and integrating strategies within the American Pandemic Preparedness Plan (AP3) are two great examples of how we can prioritize this investment. These programs would help us best use platform technologies and new mechanisms of action to identify and respond to known and unknown pathogens of concern. When future health threats pop up – and they will – scientists can respond quickly and identify vital vaccines and therapies.
Together, OWS and AP3 would be a lasting blueprint to ensure scientists have the funding and partnerships needed to swiftly respond to emerging health threats. While it may cost more upfront, amending the PREVENT Pandemics Act to include these recommendations would save lives and limit the cost to our nation in lost economic productivity.
It’s also critical to amend the bill to include the bipartisan, bicameral PASTEUR Act, which gives us an effective arsenal to address antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and supports our pandemic and biosecurity needs. Globally, AMR — or “superbugs” — kill over 1.2 million people annually. By 2050, superbugs are expected to kill more than 10 million people annually – which is nearly double the death toll from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.
Resistant infections complicated our response to COVID-19 and could exacerbate our response to biosecurity threats and health emergencies in the future. The PASTEUR Act incentivizes much-needed research and development of priority antimicrobials to treat or prevent the most urgent resistant threats to patients. This policy would drive and sustain investment into remedies to address the current threat of AMR as well as future public health emergencies.
Adding the Disease X Act to this effort is also crucial. The Disease X Act invests millions of dollars each year towards combating unknown health threats and acts as an important incentive for spurring future investment in emerging infectious diseases. Funding this program will help innovators discover products to protect Americans from novel threats.
Now is the time to invest in our defenses against the next pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken nearly 100,000 Americans from their families and friends. It has uprooted our lives – and cost our nation at least $16 trillion – so far – in lost economic productivity and output. We cannot afford to underestimate the next public health threat.
Lawmakers clearly recognize the tremendous human and financial costs of public health threats and understand our response to COVID-19 was lacking. The PREVENT Pandemics Act is a step forward, but we must continue to build upon the existing Act and incorporate far greater investment in protecting the public from emerging health threats. When it comes to saving lives and safeguarding our economy, we cannot afford to be shortsighted.