The federal government was warned the nation was unprepared for an infectious disease pandemic five years ago, says a former Bucks County congressman, now biotech industry lobbyist.
Once the curve is flattened and Americans slowly return to their pre-COVID-19 lives, Congress no doubt will hold many hearings on what went wrong with the U.S. pandemic response, according to former six-term Bucks County Republican Congressman James Greenwood.
But a national blueprint for preparing for what has become the largest public health crisis in recent memory already exists.
It was released in 2015, said Greenwood, who helped write the plan as a member of the privately sponsored Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.
“We kept saying up in the Hill it’s not a question of, if we’re going to have a global pandemic, it’s when,” Greenwood said in a phone interview last week. “You don’t have the hearing after the disaster, have these hearings before the disaster and prepare for it.”
Greenwood, who heads Biotechnology Innovations Organization, the trade group representing the biopharmaceutical industry, offered disturbing insight into how the U.S. could have prevented the current widespread COVID-19 outbreak, but failed to act.
“This is a scary time,” he said. “We could easy lose a couple hundred thousand lives.”
A year after it was convened in 2014, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense (originally called the Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense) issued a report examining naturally occurring and human-made biological threats and recommended a comprehensive strategy to reduce the impact on the country.
In addition to Greenwood, the panel included former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, and former U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
The report warned the U.S. was dangerously vulnerable to what it called an imminent infectious disease threat with more global travel, which created an ideal mass transmission means for a virus.
The panel found that the U.S. spread responsibility for biodefense across multiple federal agencies and government levels, but had no cohesive strategy pulling it together in place.
Among the panel’s recommendations: strengthening federal planning with states, developing plans to rapidly identify potential exposed populations and begin triage activities, and improving coordination of the delivery and distribution of equipment and supplies including health care resources and personnel.
As an example, Greenwood pointed to the nationwide concerns about the lack of ventilators for hospitals to treat the most serious patients infected with coronavirus.
Hospitals had no incentive to stockpile such equipment in amounts that might be needed during a future pandemic because insurers would not reimburse them, he said.
“The hospitals couldn’t afford to buy a couple hundred ventilators,” Greenwood said. “It didn’t make any sense for hospitals to say we need 50 ventilators (a year), but let’s get another 50 ventilators in case we have a pandemic.”
The situation is why the panel in 2015 recommended that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid reimburse hospitals now so their reserves would be in place when needed, he said.
The Commission’s report prompted a series of hearings on Capitol Hill which led Congress to require the heads of the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security to coordinate and produce a comprehensive defense plan for biological threats as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act.
A year later, President Donald Trump released the strategy, Greenwood said. It named the Department of Health and Human Services as the agency in charge of leading the effort, and designated the others to review federal agencies’ capacity to counter biological threats.
More than a year later, though the implementation process has fizzled out leaving the country where it was five years ago, according to Greenwood.
As for what lessons will be learned from the pandemic and response, Greenwood anticipates that it likely will prompt politicians to take biological threats seriously.
He added, when he talks to members of Congress, frequently their focus is on the “crisis du jour” — what constituents care about the most is what is considered the most vital emergency.
“Government is good at shutting barn doors when the horses are gone,” he said. “We’d be in much better shape because they would have been planning and preparing for this kind of event and what they should have done is implement this national blueprint.”