Some partial efforts have already been made, such as the World Health Organization’s inconclusive joint work with China on the virus origins, or the recently published evaluation of a WHO independent panel. But what’s needed at this point is to undertake the largest commission investigation in American history, with international coordination and help. Fortunately, with foundation support, much groundwork for such a probe has been laid by the Covid Commission Planning Group led by Philip Zelikow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The planning group has identified an ambitious agenda that looks both back and ahead, including study of the origins of the virus and variants; gaps in biosurveillance and data collection; problems in pandemic preparedness and local public health; difficulties with mitigation and its tools; faults in care for the sick; and the challenge of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. The agenda also includes documenting the frightful narrative of the pandemic in the eyes of victims, families and health-care workers. Already, the group has conducted 110 listening sessions across the United States and Europe, consulted with government officials and experts, and identified about 40 lines of inquiry and work plans. A commission would require real muscle and resources, larger and different than the 9/11 Commission, of which Mr. Zelikow was executive director.
Such a nonpartisan commission would be a golden opportunity to rebuild U.S. credibility after the stumbles of the pandemic. It could document clearly what went wrong, why certain pandemic response plans buckled and how crisis decisions were made, and show what a government should do next time. It could also look ahead at the benefits and risks of the onrushing biomedical revolution — which has made possible, among other things, the remarkable mRNA pandemic vaccines. An investigation of the virus origins would be worthwhile but also challenging. It must examine possible zoonotic spillover or an inadvertent laboratory leak in Wuhan, which China has denied and shown little willingness to investigate further.
Decisions ought to be made before too long to get a national commission off the ground. It could be chartered by Congress, by Mr. Biden or privately, but it would probably be best as a government endeavor, gaining unfettered access to records and people. Looking back at this period won’t be pleasant, nor without uncertainties. But the unvarnished truth in a national commission report will be a gift to the future.