Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
James Campbell, 65, receives a coronavirus vaccine at Community of Hope health clinic in February 2021 in Washington, DC. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
3 min

When the coronavirus pandemic reached peaks of suffering, ambition ran high to confront it and prepare for future outbreaks. In 2021, President Biden warned that “future biological threats could be far worse, and we are not adequately prepared,” and in March he proposed $88.2 billion over five years to build up biodefense and pandemic preparedness. Mr. Biden also sought $9.25 billion to fund new vaccines and therapeutics.

Mr. Biden’s proposals never got any traction in the last Congress. The public sense that life is returning to normal — a mood that Mr. Biden encouraged — certainly played a role. This leaves the nation stuck in a cycle of panic and neglect. The government’s purchase of hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines and treatments, and free distribution, is now over; others, mostly health insurers, will have to pay for the next shot, if one is even developed.

Guest Opinion: The coronavirus is speaking. It’s saying it’s not done with us.

Neither the outgoing Congress nor Mr. Biden rose to the occasion to create a national bipartisan commission on the pandemic similar to the 9/11 commission. After the death of 1 million Americans, such an investigation would have highlighted lessons learned from the chaotic pandemic response, shown the way forward on future threats and helped unravel the mystery of the virus’s origins. As it now stands, separate probes are planned in Congress’s more partisan and divisive atmosphere.

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Also on the Editorial Board’s agenda
  • The misery of Belarus’s political prisoners should not be ignored.
  • Biden has a new border plan.
  • The United States should keep the pressure on Nicaragua.
  • America’s fight against inflation isn’t over.
  • The Taliban has doubled down on the repression of women.
  • The world’s ice is melting quickly.
Ihar Losik, one of hundreds of young people unjustly jailed in Belarus for opposing Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship, attempted suicide but was saved and sent to a prison medical unit, according to the human rights group Viasna. Losik, 30, a blogger who led a popular Telegram channel, was arrested in 2020 and is serving a 15-year prison term on charges of “organizing riots” and “incitement to hatred.” His wife is also a political prisoner. Read more about their struggle — and those of other political prisoners — in a recent editorial.
The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system.
Some 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners left that Central American country for the United States in February. President Daniel Ortega released and sent them into exile in a single motion. Nevertheless, it appears that Mr. Ortega let them go under pressure from economic sanctions the United States imposed on his regime when he launched a wave of repression in 2018. The Biden administration should keep the pressure on. Read recent editorials about the situation in Nicaragua.
Inflation remains stubbornly high at 6.4 percent in January. The Federal Reserve’s job is not done in this fight. More interest rate hikes are needed. Read a recent editorial about inflation and the Fed.
Afghanistan’s rulers had promised that barring women from universities was only temporary. But private universities got a letter on Jan. 28 warning them that women are prohibited from taking university entrance examinations. Afghanistan has 140 private universities across 24 provinces, with around 200,000 students. Out of those, some 60,000 to 70,000 are women, the AP reports. Read a recent editorial on women’s rights in Afghanistan.
A new study finds that half the world’s mountain glaciers and ice caps will melt even if global warming is restrained to 1.5 degrees Celsius — which it won’t be. This would feed sea-level rise and imperil water sources for hundreds of millions. Read a recent editorial on how to cope with rising seas, and another on the policies needed to fight climate change.


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The last Congress did take some modest steps. The $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill Mr. Biden signed incorporates bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and ranking Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) that would make structural adjustments in government agencies. It creates a permanent White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy with up to 25 staffers. Starting in 2025, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be subject to Senate confirmation, which might elevate the position but also make it more political. The omnibus spending bill provides for modest but necessary increases in spending for the national biomedical stockpile to avoid shortages in the event of another pandemic. The legislation encourages the federal government to organize more sharing of genomic sequencing data and to put more emphasis on developing covid nasal vaccines, on which China has been making strides. The legislation includes $1.5 billion for the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H), an advanced technology agency modeled on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and urges the Department of Health and Human Services to exploit artificial intelligence to assist in “accelerated vaccines, rapid therapeutics, global bio-threat surveillance, and rapid fielding” of pandemic responses.

What’s needed, however, is more long-term vision. The covid pandemic was the worst public health catastrophe in 100 years but could easily happen again — and soon. A system of global genomic surveillance — an early warning radar for disease — ought to be a high priority. So should research to create a coronavirus vaccine that would work against all variants. The next chance to think big is now, with the arrival of a new Congress.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).