Michael Kotlikoff is a molecular biologist, provost and professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University. Jack Lipton is a neuroscientist, professor and founding chair of translational neuroscience in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University.

We have had the capacity for millions more coronavirus tests since the beginning of the pandemic. Thousands of academic research labs, fully capable of meeting the need for critical testing in the United States, were sidelined because federal regulations governing laboratory oversight were not designed for emergencies. This deficiency cost countless lives.

Let’s never let this happen again. We propose that Congress enact legislation to create a U.S. Biomedical National Guard.

Any plan to diminish the spread of infectious disease starts with aggressive testing. We are two scientists and university officials who, independent of each other, have spent the past seven months developing coronavirus testing methodologies and strategies at our institutions. We met when hundreds of researchers like us across the country — most of them strangers — sought each other out through a shared desire to voluntarily assist in the U.S. covid-19 response.

Our universities, Michigan State University and Cornell University, are among the 2,500 research institutions located in every state, D.C. and Puerto Rico that receive funding from the National Institutes of Health. Inside the research laboratories of those institutions are thousands of eminently skilled researchers using cutting-edge technology to perform the high-complexity work that will lead to nearly every major discovery in our lifetimes. And all of this research is sanctioned, regulated, inspected and approved by NIH, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency. All this work, in other words, is already overseen and largely funded by the U.S. government.

In March, when it became clear that more testing would lead to fewer covid-19 deaths, we started asking how we could assist existing efforts on local, state or national levels. After all, we were already trained, regulated and equipped to do so. We began developing new tests and pooling strategies for detecting the virus that minimized the use of scarce resources. We quickly learned there was no regulatory framework to temporarily allow academic research labs to operate as testing labs.

Had even a small percentage of the country’s university research labs started running covid-19 tests when we validated our tests in March, we could have contributed around 1 million extra tests per day. That’s more tests lost than the total administered in the United States since the start of the pandemic.

Let’s put this into perspective: There are hundreds of labs at MSU and Cornell that run the sort of molecular tests needed for covid-19 diagnosis on a daily basis. We have each deployed just one lab and are able to test at a capacity of 4,000 people per day at MSU and 7,000 at Cornell.

But this is only a fraction of what could have been achieved from the beginning. Our country has the largest and most sophisticated concentration of biomedical labs in the world. The capacity of this network to rapidly develop testing tests and deliver highly accurate results is enormous. If a crisis-response regulating body — federally appointed and with representatives from all major government agencies — had had the ability to activate these scientists into emergency service early in the pandemic, we believe that we could have stopped the uncontrolled spread of the virus.

A Biomedical National Guard, as we envision it, would create a corps of federally directed academic research institutions and scientists that volunteer to supply biomedical expertise and laboratory infrastructure, drastically decreasing our nation’s response time and exponentially supplementing our knowledge and resources during a disaster — not just the one we’re in, but the myriad biomedical crises we will undoubtedly face in our future.

This capability will be needed again. Epidemics, bioterrorism, natural disasters, resource pollution, and biological, chemical, radiation, and nuclear emergencies account for nearly all of the roughly 45,000 federally declared disasters since 1953. The federal government also reports that 2010 to 2019 was a “landmark decade for billion-dollar weather and climate disasters,” all of which result in substantial biomedical needs. Beyond the headlines we most remember, the United States has consistent biomedical needs that frequently dwarf the nation’s available resources.

Let’s play to our strengths. Let’s engage the highly skilled scientists, the cutting-edge equipment and the intellectual assets within our federally funded university research community to give our nation better tools in a crisis. Let’s start now.

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