Pandemics Are a Matter of National Security — Congress Should Act Like It

November 26, 2021

Pandemics Are a Matter of National Security — Congress Should Act Like It

By Ashley Arabasadi and Carolyn Reynolds

This story was originally published in The Hill

The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, yet Congress seems to have already put it in the rearview mirror. It is true that lawmakers took important steps over the past year to address the economic and health impacts of the virus here in the U.S. and abroad. But as cases and deaths continue to mount, it’s time to do much more. Right now, there’s a comprehensive piece of legislation wending its way through Congress that we believe is America’s best shot at ending this pandemic and preventing future ones.

Sadly, the bill—which had been an all-too-rare bright spot of bipartisan agreement on the need to tackle a grave threat to our national and global security—is now hanging by a thread, because political infighting has eclipsed saving lives.

The International Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19 Response Act (S.2297) would do several necessary things. First, it would help close the dramatic inequity in access to COVID-19 vaccines by supporting the distribution of more U.S. vaccines that we don’t need to partner countries that do. It calls for a detailed strategy on global vaccine distribution to accelerate access to nations most in need and to leverage other global health programs to bolster the international COVID-19 response. All of these measures will benefit Americans, because we will not be safe until the virus is defeated everywhere.

Second, the bill would address the systemic failures that left us vulnerable to COVID-19 in the first place. It requires the administration to develop and report to Congress on a comprehensive, annual plan to bolster global health security. It calls for the establishment of a Committee on Global Health Security and Pandemic and Biological Threats at the National Security Council to ensure policy coherence and continuity of effort across the agencies engaged in international and domestic prevention, preparedness, and response. The bill would also institute an annual intelligence threat assessment to facilitate early detection and prevention of potential pandemic pathogens. This is a critical element of the legislation, as experts agree that the next pandemic—whether naturally occurring, unintentional, or the result of a deliberate bioterrorist attack—is coming sooner than we think.

Third, the bill will begin to reverse the world’s dangerous underinvestment in pandemic preparedness by establishing a new Fund for Global Health Security and Pandemic Prevention and Preparedness. Such a fund has been championed by President Biden, by the bipartisan CSIS Commission for America’s Health Security, and by leading health and finance experts around the world. It is the tool we need to catalyze public and private investments in global health security and to incentivize partner countries to detect, prevent, and respond to outbreaks at their source, before they become deadly and costly pandemics. We believe the bill should authorize much more funding, but it’s a start.

Pandemics should not be treated as partisan; the virus doesn’t care which political party we support. This bill has strong bipartisan support from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and many on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and it has been endorsed by the White House. A companion bill, the Global Health Security Act (H.R.391), has already passed the House twice this year, also with strong bipartisan support. Now it’s in the hands of the Senate. 

Here’s what needs to happen: the Senate must move to include S.2297 into a manager’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Doing that could be our only chance to move this critical bill forward. This is a matter of national security. 

If the 117th U.S. Congress can’t pass a pandemic bill in the second year of a health crisis that has already killed more than 5 million people—including more than 760,000 Americans—and has decimated lives and livelihoods worldwide, we have to question our moral values. At this point, ending this pandemic is as much a political decision as it is a question of capacity and resources. Congress: this is a national and global crisis. Act like it.

Ashley Arabasadi is the senior external affairs manager at Management Sciences for Health, a global nonprofit health advisory organization, and chair emeritus of the Global Health Security Agenda Consortium. Carolyn Reynolds is co-founder of the Pandemic Action Network, a global partnership of more than 150 organizations driving collective action to end COVID-19 and help prevent future pandemics. The authors are co-chairs of the Global Health Security Roundtable, hosted by the Global Health Council.

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