COVID-19 has wreaked havoc upon the United States – a loss of more than 600,000 lives and a devastating blow to our economy – and it would be shameful if we didn’t use the lessons we have learned to help blunt the next pandemic’s impact.
The United States must change the perspective from which it prepares for and responds to a pandemic. Yes, they’re public health emergencies; however, the United States must also approach them as national security threats that need better public monitoring. Experts long have warned that infectious disease outbreaks could bring not only human suffering but also massive economic losses, and political instability – especially if outbreaks are serious enough to overwhelm health care systems, drain the workforce, and interrupt supply chains.
Think about what transpired over the past year and a half. Early on, hospitals ran out of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and life-saving ventilators for patients. The aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, had to be mostly evacuated in April 2020 as hundreds of sailors contracted the disease on board. Supply chains for everything from toilet paper to pork were disrupted. The president was hospitalized for three days, undergoing special experimental treatment to ensure his survival. And our highest-ranking military officers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were quarantined for two weeks in October after being exposed.
These are only a few examples of the many disruptions and scares the United States suffered, leaving the nation more vulnerable to other security risks while it struggled to mitigate the biological threat.
The future probably will bring worse. In addition to the climate-related crises that are expected, evidence suggests that emerging diseases will become more and more likely to reach pandemic proportions as the world becomes increasingly interconnected. The next global outbreak of a deadly disease could be right around the corner.
I’ve introduced the National Security Council Modernization Act to give the secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) – whose department oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other disease surveillance agencies – a seat on the National Security Council (NSC).
Adding the HHS secretary to the NSC would ensure that emerging public health threats are evaluated as potential national security threats, and would provide a readily available forum for the secretary to share information on such diseases with national security-oriented departments, such as the Department of Defense.
My bill also strengthens the NSC by permanently seating the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the director of National Intelligence, and by allowing only Senate-confirmed officers of the United States to serve as full members – thus limiting any president’s ability to politicize the council.
Also, as we have seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, public health misinformation – particularly on social media – can jeopardize America’s response to biological threats, unnecessarily putting people in harm’s way.
Consider the rampant, pernicious myths that accompanied COVID-19. Some claimed it was desirable to try to achieve herd immunity by letting the virus spread unchecked through the population; some claimed the number of COVID-19 deaths was much lower than what was being reported, and that the disease was being overblown; some claimed only the elderly or those with underlying health conditions could get seriously ill and require hospitalization for COVID-19. Some of these lies are still being propagated today, alongside dangerous conspiracy theories about the vaccines.
So, I’ve introduced the BIO Defense Act to strengthen the National Biodefense Strategy (NBS), a bipartisan plan enacted in 2016 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. My bill would formalize a National Biodefense Directorate, and it would include the vice president and the department secretaries. This entity would be required to meet regularly, hire staff, and establish uniform data collection methods so it can continually update the NBS to address the national security risks posed by pandemics.
And, importantly, the Directorate would develop a National Strategy Combating Biodefense Misinformation to make sure the federal government is prepared to get the best-available public health information to the American people quickly and effectively in times of crisis. Knowledge is power during a pandemic, and government must actively promote fact-based information – while actively debunking and preventing the spread of lies, be they deliberate or panic-induced – to save lives.
COVID-19 must be seen as a wake-up call, alerting us to the national security threats posed by major pandemics. It’s even clearer now that former President Donald Trump handled the challenge poorly. He ignored data and intelligence, assembled but then contradicted expert advisers, sidestepped Congress, shunned already existing strategy, and lied to Americans about the scope of the public health threat.
This mismanagement exacerbated COVID-19’s danger to U.S. national security. The lack of a national strategy to mitigate COVID-19’s fallout led to a patchwork of state and local public health policies and contributed to the public’s mass anxiety, which made people more susceptible to violent ideology.
My bills are some initial, simple guardrails to ensure that the United States is always vigilant and prepared to respond to biological threats that impact national security, now and in the future.