It has been nearly a year and a half now since the inception of the coronavirus pandemic, which has taken millions of precious lives, disrupted communities, and caused unthinkable economic damage around the world. Indeed, for many years to come, every country on earth will grapple with both the successes and lessons learned throughout every stage of the response to and recovery from the public health emergency.
While the pandemic revealed numerous issues and vulnerabilities, it most obviously proved the critical value of having a robust public health infrastructure and biomedical research capacity to combat and ultimately eradicate deadly infectious diseases. Long before COVID-19, I often noted that the risk of experiencing a deadly pandemic is much more likely than a terrorist attack, and as such, we should be ready.
Although the situation was awful across the months of the emergency, it could have been much worse and gone on for much longer. I am still encouraged by the manner in which federal, state, and local governments pulled together, along with public health, medical, and pharmaceutical communities and American businesses and individual citizens, to address the threat. The dedicated, “all hands on deck” effort of all these groups was critical to our nation’s success.
For its own part and in the years prior to the pandemic, Congress also played a significant lead role, choosing to prioritize incremental investment in tools to strengthen and sustain America’s ability to respond to threats in the biosphere. In fact, six years ago under Republican leadership, Congress began shaping policies and prioritizing funding for our biodefense readiness, including generously boosting funding year after year for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Strategic National Stockpile of medications and other medical supplies.
Most critical in the earliest days of America’s pandemic response was the prior establishment and immediate availability of emergency funding in the Infectious Disease Rapid Response Reserve Fund. As the former Chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds the Department of Health and Human Services, I proposed and advocated for the start of this emergency fund so that our public health defenders could draw funds immediately to protect American lives whenever a biothreat occurred. Importantly, the existence of this fund meant that our public health defenders would not have to wait on Congress to provide supplemental emergency funds. When the coronavirus emergency was designated a pandemic, the fund had $100 million available to do just that.
Just as the rapid response fund was a lifeline to public health defenders in the first weeks, Congress’ prior build-up of America’s biomedical research capacity laid a critical foundation. Thanks to incremental increases at the NIH and the initiation of Operation Warp Speed, our researchers were in a much better position to race toward development and delivery of a vaccine at the fastest rate in human history. And they did just that.
Make no mistake. If the pandemic has taught us all anything, it is that we can stand to spend much more on biodefense resources not less. While I am proud that Congress has made public health and infectious disease readiness a funding priority in the past and that the worthiness of such an investment is receiving greater attention, it must become an even greater focus of the federal government’s budget in the years ahead. Certainly, this is an area where Republicans and Democrats can continue to work together.
• U.S. Representative Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican, represents the Fourth Congressional District and serves on the House Appropriations Committee, where he is Vice Ranking Member of the full committee and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies. He is Ranking Member of the House Rules Committee. Recognized by Time Magazine as “one of the sharpest minds in the House,” he is a Deputy Whip for the Republican Conference and sits on the House Republican Steering Committee.