Along with scientists, many others, including legislators, former health agency leaders, and members of past investigatory commissions, are now saying that we’ll need something similar to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic. At least five proposals to launch an inquiry have been circulated in the House of Representatives, according to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service.
“Given the colossal catastrophe we’ve experienced, there needs to be something of that ilk as a way of pulling the country together and laying down in a very clear way what happens next,” says J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, DC, think tank. “It needs to be done with investigative authority, and it’s going to require exceptional leadership and speed.”
“We shouldn’t think that, once we get to a vaccine—whenever that is—and once we’re able to arrest this virus, that we’ll be able to rest easy,” Morrison continues. “We are in a new era of more frequent, higher-impact, higher-velocity zoonotic threats.”
The first task of any coronavirus equivalent of the 9/11 Commission would be simply to establish one narrative of the pandemic, because Americans have experienced its effects so differently depending on where they live. (New York, the hardest-hit state, has had more than 388,000 cases; Montana, with slightly more than 600 cases, has suffered least.) But just as with the World Trade Center attacks, examining how the US failed this year will require acknowledging the multiple ignored warnings, some from the federal government and others from academic research, that an overwhelming pandemic was on the way. (Within Morrison’s CSIS, the Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security predicted last November: “The United States remains woefully ill-prepared to respond to global health security threats.”)
But another part of the examination of 9/11 involved creating new structures in the government to stand up defenses against future attacks, such as the Department of Homeland Security. The already evident needs for preventing another pandemic catastrophe include shoring up deep stockpiles of supplies such as medications and personal protective equipment. Covid-19 might lead also to new federal initiatives or federal funding of academic initiatives. Last week, for instance, researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, which in September 2019 wrote one of the reports predicting a coming pandemic, proposed that Congress create a “national center for epidemic forecasting,” a disease-prediction agency modeled on the federal entities that warn Americans against catastrophic weather in time to protect themselves.
“The way this epidemic has gone has been the US government reaching out in an ad hoc way to modelers, who are mostly in universities or in the private sector, and getting them to answer questions on the fly,” says Tom Ingelsby, the center’s director and an infectious disease physician. “We would never accept that for predicting hurricanes.”
At the same time that they made that proposal, the Hopkins researchers also presented Congress with a plan for a $1.5 billion program, shared across multiple federal agencies, that could rapidly produce antivirals, vaccines, and diagnostic tests when they’re needed. That price tag indicates what one of the struggles of learning from Covid-19 is going to be: deciding how much money the country is willing to commit in advance to protect against threats whose arrival is unpredictable.
It’s attitudes toward spending, after all, that helped turn the US Covid-19 response into a catastrophe. That includes both federal cuts—take the National Security Council disbanding its global health security team and the White House slashing the CDC’s budget—and private sector decisions, such as corporations offshoring mask manufacturing in order to reduce their labor costs.
Perplexingly, there’s another facet of homeland security for which the US has no difficulty organizing long-term spending. The Department of Defense forecasts its weapons needs and designs—and procures its jets and transport vehicles—over decades. It commits federal money years in advance of deploying anything it buys.