Key senators propose an overhaul of how the U.S. prepares for pandemics

WASHINGTON — A powerful, bipartisan duo of senators wants to empower Congress to ensure the government’s response to the next pandemic is far smoother than it was on Covid-19.

One of the most significant policies in the plan, released in a draft on Tuesday, would create a 9/11-style bipartisan commission to formally investigate the United States’ pandemic response — a proposal that has failed to gain traction until now. Another would require Senate confirmation for the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The sweeping measure, which was in the works for nearly a year, is the product of negotiations between Senate health committee chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking member Richard Burr (R-N.C.). The release comes shortly before lawmakers are facing down a deadline to fund the government by Feb. 18, a rare potential bipartisan vehicle for legislation. Murray and Burr said they plan to mark up the bill “in the coming weeks.”

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“After everything our nation has been through these past two years, we owe it to everyone who worked so hard to get us through this crisis to take every step we can to make sure we are never in this situation again, and that’s what this bill will help us get done,” Murray said in a written statement.

The leaders’ framework includes a laundry list of policies spanning the full range of government agencies involved in the pandemic.

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The lawmakers clearly want to give more statutory direction to federal agencies involved in the pandemic response. Beyond requiring Senate confirmation for the CDC director, Murray and Burr also propose establishing specific duties for the role and requiring an agency-wide plan every four years with oversight by a government watchdog. The proposal would also task the CDC with expanding the country’s genomic sequencing capabilities, continuing infectious disease forecasting and modeling, and creating new standards for public health data collection.

The legislation also would outline more explicitly the role of the assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR). Burr created the role in his marquee 2006 law, the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act.

On medical research, the proposal would force the National Institutes of Health to consult with other agencies on projects to counter public health threats. It also requires NIH and ASPR to establish a research program focused on discovering countermeasures for viruses that could cause pandemics. One industry lobbyist worried, however, that under an NIH-ASPR collaboration, the NIH could dominate the initiative, and the budget.

One new responsibility the proposal delegates to the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, a division of ASPR, is to ensure baseline manufacturing capacity for tools like vaccines or therapeutics to be made quickly in case of emergency.

Notably, the framework doesn’t include more long-term funding for state and local health departments, which had been a high priority for Murray. It instead re-ups a loan forgiveness program for public health professionals and a grant program to support community health workers. However, it’s possible some additional funding could be included in another package containing President Biden’s domestic agenda or in regular funding to the agencies.

A Democratic committee aide said the package released Tuesday is an important first step, but more work remains ahead. Murray is continuing to push for sustained, annual investments in public health infrastructure, including in the upcoming government funding package, the aide said.

Murray and Burr said they are also considering adding the White House’s proposed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H, a proposed $6.5 billion agency aimed at tackling major diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes, to the proposal.

Source: STAT