BioCentury is providing this content for free given the urgent need for information about the coronavirus crisis. Further analysis can be found in our COVID-19 Resource Center. For more, sign up for our daily email.
0111 COVID Commission
BioCentury & Getty Images

Editor’s Commentary

The U.S. needs a COVID commission: Editor’s Commentary

An independent inquiry should hold officials accountable and chart the path forward

An independent inquiry should hold officials accountable and chart the path forward, writes Washington Editor Steve Usdin.

Jan 11, 2021 | 10:33 PM GMT

No country was better prepared for a pandemic than the United States and in no country has the response been as disastrously incompetent. The American public needs to know why.

By the end of January, the pandemic will have killed more Americans than are buried in Arlington cemetery. On almost each day this year, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has exceeded the number of people who were murdered on 9/11. 

Congress and the Biden administration should launch an independent public inquiry into the failures that allowed COVID-19 to cause so much unnecessary death and devastation. It could be modeled after the 9/11 and Warren commissions. 

If elected representatives lack the will to create a COVID commission, or are unable to do it in a non-partisan manner that will earn the public trust, philanthropies should step forward to take up the task. 

Similar initiatives may be necessary in other countries, but the need is acute in the U.S. where assaults on democratic institutions have made transparency and accountability especially urgent. President Donald Trump and top government officials fanned the pandemic flames by deliberately eroding confidence in science, prioritizing political agendas over protecting lives and hiring public health officials based on personal loyalty rather than competence. Their actions and the consequences of those actions should be delineated so the public will recognize the signs of any repeat performances before it is too late.

The COVID commission should be led by widely respected scientists, public health experts, civic and business leaders, and staffed with experienced investigators and individuals with medical, regulatory and biopharma expertise. Like the 9/11 Commission, it should be armed with powers to subpoena documents and testimony and charged with determining what went wrong and with recommending a path forward. If the commission is not an official government body, it should collaborate with congressional committees that have subpoena power. 

Justice and the memories of those silenced by the pandemic demand that government leaders who betrayed the people’s trust be held accountable. An accounting is also necessary because it can serve as a guide to rebuilding public health institutions and making investments that are essential to erecting strong defenses against pandemics that are certain to again threaten humanity.

The process must include crafting contrasting timelines of what government agencies and officials did and what they knew, alongside what they should or could have done based on the best available information.

The commission’s remit must include laying out specific steps that Congress, the Biden administration, life sciences companies, academic researchers and others can take to better protect the nation and the world from pandemic threats. Its recommendations should spell out pragmatic paths to enhancing collaboration with allies and adversaries, sustainable spending on global, national and local health institutions, and policies to advance and apply science to detect, diagnose, prevent and treat outbreaks.

Just as the 9/11 Commission pointed to breakdowns in sharing information among agencies focused on domestic and foreign intelligence, a COVID commission is likely to find that uncoupling public health activities from medical countermeasures development, pushing for medical advances but neglecting to invest the time and money needed to ensure that they were put to good use, caused catastrophic loss of life. The bumbling rollout of mAbs and lackluster pace of vaccine administration are clear examples of the abdication of responsibility on the part of the federal government.

It is essential for a COVID commission to start as soon as possible, while the horror of our situation is impossible to deny, the memories of participants are fresh, and self-serving narratives haven’t gelled into accepted truths. Waiting until COVID-19 has been tamed creates the risk that as with previous crises — SARS, MERS, Ebola, Zika — vows of action will be made but will be quickly forgotten as attention moves to the next crisis.

Signed commentaries do not necessarily reflect the views of BioCentury.

How to gain access

Continue reading with a
two-week free trial.