The Biden administration is proposing that the nation spend $30 billion over the next four years to help prevent the next pandemic, just as the U.S. starts to see the light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel.
The funds are part of the White House’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan, announced Wednesday. The money would be directed to the Strategic National Stockpile, development of tests and treatments for emerging diseases, prototype vaccines, and improved technology for faster vaccine production. The funding would also go toward improving the U.S. public health infrastructure and training more pandemic response workers.
Public health scientists and researchers expect pandemics to become more common in the coming decades and say that preparing against disasters and diseases is more a necessity than an option. “Our national health security is as vital to our national defense as buying tanks and planes,” said Greg Burel, who was director of the Strategic National Stockpile from 2007 to January 2020.
The Covid-19 response has only amplified the issues that have been brewing in the U.S. health-care system for decades.
“Outbreaks of SARS, Ebola, influenza, Zika and others have cost billions in lost productivity. The risk of catastrophic biological threats is increasing due to our interconnected world, heightened risk of spillover from animals to humans, ease of making and modifying pandemic agents, and an eroding norm against the development and use of biological weapons,” the White House said.
Funding for public health has seen a panic-and-neglect cycle over the last two decades, with a burst of money after each disease outbreak that then returned to low funding levels. Those decades of cuts have crumbled the nation’s public health infrastructure, leading to lapses in technology and an inability to build an adequate public health workforce.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are working on bipartisan legislation to prevent the next pandemic but finding common ground will likely take time.
Government officials, infectious disease researchers, public health officials, and others say that the world needs to better monitor pathogens and emerging infectious diseases, repair the World Health Organization, build up genomic sequencing capabilities, develop vaccines more quickly and effectively, and better plan the logistics required for large emergencies.
Dawn O’Connell, who has been nominated to serve as the Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for preparedness and response, would likely be responsible for using much of the funds if confirmed. She would lead the main HHS agency that prepares for and works to stop pandemics and biohazard attacks.
Medical Supply Stockpile
O’Connell would oversee the Strategic National Stockpile, a set of warehouses that holds billions of dollars worth of drugs and vaccines in case a biological or chemical threat hits the U.S. The stockpile also holds personal protective equipment, antibiotics, emergency medicines, and testing supplies like nasal swabs.
Stockpile acting Director Steven Adams said in December 2020 if he was given additional funds, he would focus on sustaining the capabilities critical for fighting Covid-19; increasing supplies needed for chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats; and expanding relationships with distributors beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.
Industry and government health officials say the stockpile needs to evolve and be less about supplies sitting on a shelf than the ability to respond quickly to any types of disasters or diseases.
It needs to have visibility into the medical supply chain and keep the relationships with medical distributors and manufacturers that have been developed during the pandemic, former HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Robert Kadlec said in December 2020.
The infusion of cash could also lead to progress on a universal flu vaccine or universal coronavirus vaccine, something which Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said is necessary for years.
“It really behooves us to take a look at the fact that we’ve had three pandemic realities or potentials,” Fauci told Bloomberg Law in December 2020, referencing the SARS outbreak in 2003 and MERS in 2012. “We’re on our third coronavirus pandemic. We have to get a universal coronavirus vaccine.”
—With assistance from Jeannie Baumann