We applaud President Trump for putting Vice President Pence in charge of the U.S. government’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. The Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense we co-chair made this very recommendation four years ago. Too bad it took a crisis to get it done, but that’s Washington.
Here’s what our National Blueprint for Biodefense said about this in 2015:
“The nation lacks a single leader to control, prioritize, coordinate, and hold agencies accountable for working toward common national biodefense. This weakness precludes sufficient defense against biological threats. A leader must, therefore, take charge of our nation’s response to biological crises, as well as day-to-day activities in the absence of such crises. Leadership of biodefense should be institutionalized at the White House with the vice president. This office alone can be imbued with the authority of the president to coordinate agencies, budgets, and strategies across the government in a way that no other position can.”
While it appears Vice President Pence’s oversight responsibilities are limited to the novel coronavirus response, we hope the president ultimately puts the vice president in charge of the entire biodefense enterprise to ensure that the government is working optimally to defend against naturally occurring diseases like novel coronavirus, accidents, biological terrorism and the threat of biological warfare from other nation-states.
Unfortunately, the Department of State’s own assessment shows that other countries are developing biological weapons, terrorist organizations want to engage in bioterrorism and that our government does not afford the biological threat the same level of attention as it does other threats. There is no permanent, centralized leader for biodefense. The White House deserves credit for issuing a National Biodefense Strategy in 2018 – another of our initial 2015 recommendations – however, as the Government Accountability Office confirmed recently, it still needs to be fully implemented. There is no doubt this has held our coronavirus response back. We also need an all-inclusive dedicated biodefense budget, as the sudden request for billions in emergency appropriations made quite apparent this week.
As a nation, we are trying to get ahead of the virus, however, it is too late to prevent it. Now we must do what we can to contain it until we can develop a vaccine for it or warmer weather slows its spread.
Moving forward, we urge the vice president to establish a stratified biodefense hospital system with hospitals at different levels that can treat patients with any novel or unusual disease (as opposed to funding handfuls of different hospitals to treat each new disease that comes along) – just like we do with different levels of trauma centers. It might be appropriate for a handful of high-level hospitals to treat a handful of patients with novel coronavirus, but that will no longer be feasible if thousands of people need care and our own country imposes travel restrictions.
We also urge Vice President Pence to construct a public-private partnership to develop both rapid point-of-care diagnostic tests to find out whether people have an infectious disease and vaccines to treat and prevent it. Pharmaceutical companies cannot do it alone financially. We also need to integrate biosurveillance systems and share data with domestic and international partners, so that everyone can get a more accurate picture of the spread of diseases and respond more efficiently and effectively. Additionally, the vice president needs to determine how we are going to deal with shortages in medicines and essential medical supplies that we ordinarily obtain from China and other affected countries.
Leadership moves America forward. A central and authoritative leader can foster substantial progress on biodefense. Our hope is that the vice president, now installed in his new role, along with an interagency team of officials and experts, will not only make substantial progress in responding to this latest outbreak but will also lay the groundwork for coordinating public and private sector activities, ultimately revolutionizing defense of the nation against biological threats, no matter what their source.
We need to accept that the next disease event is already around the corner. Leadership and preparation for inevitable health crises, given the globalization of disease, are the most effective ways of limiting its impact. Change is never easy during a crisis, but it will be worth it if it results in dramatic improvements that follow our national blueprint for biodefense.
Tom Ridge is the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and the co-chair of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.