Congress’ efforts to prepare for the next pandemic are lagging behind

WASHINGTON – Tackling federal government failures during the Covid-19 pandemic fell off Congress’ list of priorities this year, according to three lobbyists and a congressional aide following the talks.

Although Congress appeared poised to move forward this spring – with rare bipartisan interest in strengthening the nation’s pandemic infrastructure – this action has been delayed as Democrats fight over massive bills containing President Biden’s national agenda and avoiding a government shutdown and financial crisis. If this Congress does finally take action to improve the public health response, that probably won’t happen until next year.

Already, the federal government’s failures to prepare for a pandemic have claimed more than 700,000 American lives in the past 18 months. Public health experts decried outdated data systems and supply chain vulnerabilities, and warned that without legislative action, all of these problems will persist until the next crisis. They see a rare but fleeting opportunity to break the cycle of ignoring public health funding until times of crisis.


Senate Health Committee chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) And non-commissioned member Richard Burr (RN.C.) are leading the way in this effort. The couple had hoped to prepare a draft of their legislative priorities by the end of the summer of this year, but three lobbyists and a congressional aide said they might not be ready until the end of this year or the early 2022. Murray said in a written statement that the couple have made steady progress with a goal of releasing a bill “in the coming weeks.”

If the bill is delayed, it means that it would miss opportunities to be incorporated into three massive legislative vehicles that are expected to be moved this year: a government funding bill, an infrastructure bill and a package. tote containing other Democratic political priorities. Prospects for the next legislative year are still unclear, but bills tend to be more difficult to pass during election years, and most political decisions today take place in big packages.


Murray said in a brief interview with STAT on Capitol Hill on Wednesday that she was still optimistic about her prospects.

“We have a lot of stuff on our plate right now. I’m not too worried that he’ll pass at the end of the day, ”Murray said.

While the timeline may be delayed, talks are ongoing. Eric Lander, the cabinet official who heads the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, has initiated talks, a congressional aide said. Lander released its own $ 65 billion biosecurity plan in September aimed at developing and manufacturing vaccines, treatments and tests faster. It calls for new funding for laboratory capacity, viral detection mechanisms and early warning systems.

The White House did not respond to an investigation into Lander’s involvement in the talks.

While legislative progress to strengthen pandemic preparedness has been slower than expected in the Senate, it has been virtually non-existent in the House. A spokesperson for the energy and trade committee declined to say whether the panel, which is the House counterpart of Murray and Burr’s committee, intends to pursue pandemic preparedness legislation .

Representative Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), Co-chair of the Pandemic Preparedness Caucus launched in August 2020, introduced a bill with Representative David McKinley (RW.Va.) on Monday that would address health workforce shortages in biopreparation. and the areas of infectious disease, and a spokeswoman for Trahan said she was working on drafting another separate bill to create a supply chain tracking system for medical supplies.

A deadline looms on the horizon next year: Burr’s retirement after the 2022 midterm election. Earlier in his Senate career, Burr drafted the Pandemic and All Hazards Preparedness Act , which created the federal offices known as ASPR and BARDA which have been at the center of the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lobbyists and stakeholders have said passing a pandemic preparedness bill that includes lessons learned from Covid-19 will likely be a legacy for the senator.

“This is something Senator Burr wants to do before he retires. I don’t think there is an urgent need to get it right this millisecond, but it is recognized that there is still work to be done, ”said Asha George, Executive Director of the Biparty Commission on Biodefense.

Murray and Burr in spring asked for ideas on how to strengthen federal preparedness and response systems, improve and secure the supply chain for medical supplies, develop medical countermeasures, and address health disparities . Burr has always expressed a desire to reform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Murray has called for increased long-term funding for public health services.

Some short-term funding for state and local health services can end up in annual expense bills. Senate Democrats proposed last week to add $ 600 million for public health infrastructure at the CDC and for state and local governments – an increase of $ 200 million from what President Biden had requested , corn $ 400 billion less than what House Democrats proposed.

However, Democrats need Republicans’ support to pass the spending bills. Funding levels could still change, or Congress could choose to expand funding to current levels instead.

Dara Lieberman, director of government relations for the public health policy group Trust for America’s Health, reiterated the importance of long-term funding for public health, as was included in a previous Murray bill that provided for $ 750 million for public health infrastructure next year. , and would eventually reach annual funding of $ 4.5 billion.

“Let’s say the owners are providing $ 600 million this year. It’s still not a guarantee for next year or next year, ”said Lieberman. “Public health departments can’t hire if they don’t know the funding will be there next year or won’t be extended.”

Despite a few bipartisan calls to action to review the federal government’s response to Covid-19 with an independent 9/11-style commission, bills to create such panels have not been successful. Murray continued to have conversations about the importance of an independent assessment of the Covid-19 response, a committee aide said.

Beyond demonstrating the importance of preparing for another catastrophic pandemic, Covid-19 has illustrated how fragile U.S. surveillance systems are in responding to other natural or man-made disasters, said Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota and former Covid-19 advisor for Biden.

Soumi Saha, vice president of advocacy at Premier Inc., which buys supplies on behalf of healthcare providers, said her biggest fear was that preparedness efforts would lose momentum.

“It’s not just about the next pandemic, it’s about disasters like the winter storm in Texas. There are things we need to do, ”Saha said.

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