President Biden’s top scientific adviser said Friday that the US must prepare for the possibility that a pandemic worse than the COVID-19 outbreak will strike within the next decade.
Dr. Eric Lander, a geneticist and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, told reporters on a conference call that the pandemic had arrived at a time when advances in both science and technology “made it possible to respond much more rapidly than ever before.”
“Had COVID-19 emerged five years ago, we would have had far fewer tools to do this,” Lander said, “But, five years from now, we need to have much better capabilities.”
Lander called on Congress to allocate at least $15 billion to kick-start a plan for pandemic preparedness in the budget reconciliation bill set to be debated this fall on Capitol Hill.
The plan unveiled by Lander — which has a final price tag of $65.3 billion over the next seven to 10 years — features five “pillars to protect the US against biological threats.” They include improving vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics; developing more robust early warning and real-time monitoring systems; modernizing the public health system; building stockpiles of personal protective equipment and expanding supply chains; and establishing a centralized “Mission Control” with input from agencies across the federal government.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental issues with America’s public heath that go far beyond pandemic preparedness,” Lander said. “The issues include the need to increase overall public health funding, strengthen the public health workforce, eliminate barriers to access, improve data systems, address disparities, improve communications, and improve coordination across federal, state, local, and Tribal authorities.”
In an accompanying 27-page document titled “American Pandemic Preparedness: Transforming Our Capabilities,” White House officials wrote that the initial $15 billion ask was “modest” compared to the estimated $16 trillion loss to the economy caused by COVID-19.
“If major pandemics similar to COVID-19, costing the US roughly $16 trillion, occur at a frequency of every 20 years, the annualized economic impact on the U.S. would be $800 billion per year,” the document read. “Even for somewhat milder pandemics, the annualized cost would likely exceed $500 billion.”
The document also noted the annualized cost of the plan (between $6 billion and $9 billion) would be less than is spent annually on missile defense and counter-terrorism ($20 billion and $170 billion, respectively). It added that more than a third of the total $65.3 billion cost would be used to design, develop and test new vaccines for “active viral diseases,” as well as adapt them to keep pace with variants and simplify their distribution.
“Even with the knowledge and the tools that dramatically improved our ability to respond, COVID-19 has still been devastating for the nation and the world,” Lander said.
“As of today, COVID-19 has killed at least 642,000 Americans and many, many millions of people around the world, and many recovered patients are living with long-term effects of the disease.”
“There is a reasonable likelihood that another serious pandemic that could be worse than COVID-19 will occur soon, possibly even within the next decade,” he added. “And the next pandemic will very likely be substantially different than COVID-19. So, we must be prepared to deal with any type of viral threat.”