The Biden administration on Tuesday unveiled a new national biodefense strategy, aiming to adapt lessons drawn from the rocky response to the Covid-19 pandemic as it prepares the country for future public health emergencies.
The strategy, which has been long anticipated, includes such goals as strengthening public health workforces both in the United States and globally, and establishing international mechanisms to bolster laboratory safety.
The government’s plan outlines policy targets for more than 20 federal agencies to help the country and world try to prevent epidemics, detect them faster, respond when they occur, minimize their impact, and recover, senior administration officials said on a call with reporters Monday as they previewed the strategy. Oversight for the strategy will be at the White House, under the national security advisor.
The strategy also outlines “moonshot” targets that officials said were not possible as of now but could be achieved within a decade with the proper resources. There are 26 families of viruses known to be able to infect people, “many of which we are far less prepared for than coronaviruses,” a senior administration official said on the call. Government and industry scientists, for example, had already been developing coronavirus vaccines when the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, emerged in late 2019.
“One of the important things that Covid has taught us is that we need to be able to move much faster to counter pandemic threats, and we also need to be prepared for completely unknown threats,” the official said.
The moonshot targets include being able to test for new pathogens within 12 hours and make rapid tests available within 90 days; develop vaccines within 100 days and manufacture enough for the U.S. population within 130 days and for the high-risk global population within 200 days; and repurpose existing drugs within 90 days and develop new treatments within 180 days.
The administration officials said they were starting to pursue some of these goals with agencies’ baseline funding, but noted that President Biden has asked Congress to allocate $88 billion over five years for pandemic preparedness.
It’s not clear if lawmakers have much of an appetite for additional public health spending. Republicans in Congress have balked at recent requests for funding for the ongoing monkeypox and Covid-19 responses.
The new biodefense strategy envisions recruiting, training, and sustaining a public health workforce — including laboratory technicians, veterinarians, and community health workers — to not only better detect emerging diseases but respond to them. Public health departments in the United States have long warned they’re underfunded and overworked, a dynamic only exacerbated by the pandemic. But administration officials said the goal was not only to build up such a public health army in the United States, but that they were also committed to helping at least 50 countries strengthen their own local capacities.
The administration’s plan also calls for international mechanisms that can help strengthen lab safety and biosecurity practices around the world. The pandemic has led to heated questions about the risks and benefits of research into potentially dangerous viruses amid speculation that the coronavirus could have “leaked” from a virology institute in Wuhan, China, even as recent research has indicated that the outbreak likely started as a result of a spillover from animals.
Still, the administration’s plan is to be ready for all biological threats and epidemics, “whether they’re naturally occurring, deliberate, or accidental,” as one senior official said.