By Sally Huang, Biodefense PhD Student
With the current COVID-19 pandemic revealing major gaps in national readiness, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense brought together members of the legislative and scientific community for a virtual discussion on the need to increase and optimize resource investments to promote changes in US policy and strengthen national pandemic preparedness and response. Even as the nation continues to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the various panelists unanimously acknowledged that the world will most likely face future pandemics. After having adapted to telework, decisionmakers are determined to enhance and enact new policies and guidelines to better position the nation to effectively respond to future infectious disease threats. Areas requiring the nation’s attention were addressed in three separate panel discussions; emerging biological threats and innovative technology for biodefense, emerging biological risks, and the future of biodefense. The recording of the virtual discussion held by the Commission, “The Biological Event Horizon: No Return or Total Resilience,” can be found here.
Representatives Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) discussed the responsibility the US has to its people to take advantage of lessons learned so far from the COVID-19 pandemic to integrate into pandemic preparedness and response policies. After all, as much as governments monitor indicators of possible biological attack, there is no set method to predict or foretell events of Mother Nature, “the world’s worst bioterrorist” and how it may further increase infectious disease threats. The US, operating from a privileged position as a world power, had a heightened belief of preparedness partly brought on by availability of advanced biotechnologies, but quickly realized the scope of their unpreparedness as private and public sectors were overwhelmed. The shock that resulted from COVID-19 demonstrates that the government not only has to invest meaningfully in CBRN programs, but also speaks to the need to translate scientific research into solutions in order to be well-equipped. For example, expanding and improving management of the Strategic National Stockpile and establishing a national forecasting system of infectious diseases analogous to the National Weather Service. This also includes revamping trainings and imparting institutions with flexible working styles in recognition that teleworking and digital platforms are transforming the working landscape. This is much needed for government institutions as COVID-19 caused a significant interruption in government operations and its ability to provide services to the people. More importantly, with the November election approaching, the nation requires clear leadership from the White House during this critical time to steer pandemic and biodefense progress in the right direction.
These policy additions and enhancements are also backed by advice given by experts, including Jaime Yassif, PhD, Sohini Ramachandran, PhD, and Nita Madhav, MSPH, about emerging biological risks. There is an evident need to close the gap between science and policy to enrich pandemic preparedness and foster a culture of cooperation, coordination, and resilience. As the panelists mention, numbers of infectious diseases will increase over time, meaning that complex contagion will inevitably become a reality the US and international community have to battle with. Thus, this further highlights the urgent need to fund interdisciplinary research to enhance analytical tools for infectious disease modeling and sheds light on the national forecasting suggestion brought up by the first set of panelists to better coordinate infectious disease analytics and information more efficiently. Proactive preparedness will help ensure proactive and effective reaction.
That being said, all the more reason to pay attention and invest strategically in the future of biodefense. Private and public sectors need to be effectively incorporated into a national strategy in order to improve foundational capabilities and compensate for the noticeable gaps during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes enhancing and providing support to the supply chain, a critical building block for addressing America’s material needs. Additionally, analytic and scientific models should account for modern globalization trends and climate change effects to heighten awareness and response. The recent wildfires spreading across California, Oregon, and Washington serve as an example where unpredictable events have the potential to set up ideal conditions for further disease transmission. Not to mention, natural events cause ecological shifts that also contribute to a changed infectious disease landscape. Decisionmakers have no doubt that this feat will require a strong united front to address these concerns.
The recommendations raised during this virtual discussion led to congressional members underscoring the significance of the Apollo Project for Biodefense. Noted as a vital step to building the nation’s resilience, this initiative will examine the nation’s track record of dealing with infectious diseases, and assess how to better invest and coordinate science and technology efforts and innovation. Extending the ambitions, values, and characteristics of the original Apollo mission,—with the goal of landing the first humans on the moon, to the current COVID-19 pandemic—the legislative and scientific community are hopeful that the bipartisan Apollo Project for Biodefense will champion public and private sector partnership, and galvanize public support to achieve prevention and mitigation of infectious disease threats. Legislative and scientific communities are optimistic that this initiative will push the country in the right direction to better understand, prepare for, and anticipate future pandemics.
This three-paneled virtual discussion echoes the notion that positive policy change in the realm of infectious diseases is a dynamic and all-inclusive process in which various sectors have to participate and cooperate, and integrate expert advice with legislative detail to properly enact long-term change. Even from a virtual distance, it is clear that members of the legislative and scientific community are ready to take collaborative action to ensure that the world doesn’t come to another standstill in the face of future pandemics. As the country continues to struggle and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, the right policies governed by suitable leadership will determine a nation’s future plan, response, and resilience towards infectious diseases. While the Apollo Project for Biodefense emphasizes a united and hopeful front, the panelists are aware that a great deal of coordination is still required before strategies can be translated into action. There will have to be steadfast commitment from various sectors and stakeholders in order to foster preparedness, resilience, and response during this opportune window of time.