Senate Plans Legislation to Prepare for Next Pandemic Like COVID-19

June 23, 2020 by Tom Ramstack
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) talks with reporters on Nov. 29, 2016, before the Senate Policy Luncheons in the U.S. Capitol. (Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/Newscom/Zuma Press/TNS)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate tried Tuesday to respond to warnings from infectious disease experts that coronavirus is only an example of other pandemics that are coming soon.

The World Health Organization has warned that a global population topping 7.8 billion plus global warming are creating a breeding ground for the kind of viruses that can devastate people and economies.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wants to use coronavirus as an incubator for ideas to prepare for the next pandemic.

“COVID 19 has exposed some gaps,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said during a hearing Tuesday about the nation’s preparations for the pandemic.

He gave a glimpse of a bill the committee he chairs is putting together for introduction in the Senate soon.

It would provide funding to accelerate research and development on vaccines, expand a network for early detection of outbreaks, stockpile medicines and personal protective equipment and assist states in responding to diseases.

Alexander said Congress should “pass legislation this year to be prepared for the next pandemic that will surely come.”

Many provisions of the bill he is overseeing are derived from a plan proposed 15 years ago by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who was a witness at the hearing Tuesday.

Frist called his plan the “Manhattan Project of the 21st Century,” which is taken from the name of the World War II project to develop a nuclear bomb.

“Most of what I recommended in 2005 remains undone,” Frist told the Senate committee.

He suggested that new disease prevention and response programs be funded from the U.S. defense budget. This year’s fiscal year defense budget is $721.5 billion.

“Health security is national security,” Frist said.

He also recommended more public-private partnerships to manufacture the medical equipment needed for pandemic responses.

Julie L. Gerberding, chief patient officer for pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., said the federal government must be willing to pursue research and development for new disease-fighting technologies even if there is no certainty of success.

“If we aim for efficiency, we’re going to be slow and miss the boat,” Gerberding said.

She mentioned the federal government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) as an organization that could take the lead in research and development.

On Tuesday, BARDA announced the latest of several public-private ventures to develop a rapid COVID-19 test. The technology from MBio Diagnostics uses blood flowing through a cartridge to measure antibodies that indicate the presence of disease in as little as five minutes.

BARDA also is working to develop vaccines, medicines and infection control equipment.

The hearing took place as the number of reported coronavirus cases hit record levels in 23 states this week. Nationwide, 2.3 million cases have been reported with more than 120,000 deaths.

One of the states hardest hit is Texas, where disease experts this week accused the federal government of a slow response to the outbreak.

“What’s next,” asked Gerald Parker, director of the pandemic and biosecurity program at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Public Service, during a televised interview. “We must prevent this from happening again. COVID-19 is not a 100 year event like some people are saying.”

At a separate U.S. House hearing Tuesday, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said states are opening too soon to avoid a resurgence of the disease.

Although deaths from the virus have been dropping in the past few days, the number of infections is going up.

“Deaths always lag considerably behind cases,” he said.

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