Former BIO CEO Jim Greenwood: 1 million dead, $16 trillion in losses is our wake-up call on pandemic preparedness
Having spent more than a quarter century working at the intersection of politics and biomedical innovation as a six-term US Congressman and CEO of the BIO trade organization, I was honored to accept a position on the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense back in 2014. Commissioners were chosen based on our reputation as pragmatic problem-solvers. Also initially attracted to the cause were former Senators Joe Lieberman and Tom Daschle, former Governor Tom Ridge, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, and former Homeland Security Advisor Kenneth Weinstein.
Our job was to put politics aside and make recommendations to Congress and successive administrations on ways to improve our country’s preparedness for a pandemic or bioterrorism event. After consulting with the nation’s leading experts on biological threats, we unanimously concluded that it was not a matter of if but when such a deadly event would happen. The first paragraph of our first report to Congress back in 2015 stated as much: “The United States is underprepared for biological threats... While biological events may be inevitable, their level of impact on our country is not.”
Multiple Congresses and administrations have adopted some of our recommendations, but not nearly enough. If they had, the COVID pandemic would have been significantly less lethal and costly. The United States instead has earned the dubious distinction of amassing the world’s highest pandemic death toll (1 million people) and the world’s steepest economic losses ($16 trillion).
While it may be human nature not to believe that a catastrophe is inevitable until one is upon us, our federal leaders can ill afford to make the same mistakes twice. For this reason, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense continues to convene, with former FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and former Congresswoman Susan Brooks signing on to add their expertise. Our mission has never been more urgent. Experts in virology and zoonotic disease transmission predict that no future generation will escape pandemics and warn that new outbreaks could be even more deadly than the one from which we have yet to emerge.
While biological events may be inevitable, their level of impact on our country is not.
One undeniable bright spot in our federal COVID-19 response was the work of public-private partnerships like Operation Warp Speed that resulted in history’s most rapid development of vaccines and therapeutics. Hundreds of life sciences companies deployed their best scientists, technology and creative spirit, working around the clock in shifts and social distancing in the lab to avoid infection. Many biotechs turned their entire R&D function on a dime, with no guarantee of a return on investment. In many cases, federal investment and unpreceded regulatory partnerships helped speed innovation to market. According to some estimates, these efforts reduced the pandemic death toll by as much as two-thirds. But there is so much more we can and must do to be prepared for what comes next.
The Commission summed up the nature of the ongoing threat in a report outlining the Apollo Program for Biodefense: “The risk of naturally occurring pandemics grows as biodiversity is reducing due to deforestation and diminished wildlife habitat quality. The exploitation of wildlife through hunting and trade facilitates opportunities for animal–human interactions and zoonotic disease transmission... Our country must decide to make the prevention and deterrence of the next biological incident top priorities. We cannot simply afford to focus on the response to the current pandemic but must work to put in place mitigation measures to reduce the impact of future biological events.”
The Apollo program includes detailed proposals to revolutionize medical countermeasures; establish an antigen bank and broad-spectrum antiviral drugs to be better prepared to respond to future viral threats; create rapid point-of-care diagnostics so, next time, a year doesn’t pass before we can test and quarantine the infected; advance platform technologies to discover vaccines and therapies that can be rapidly manufactured at scale; and develop at least one vaccine candidate for each of the world’s 26 families of viral pathogens that infect humans.
The Commission also proposes advanced environmental detection systems; expanded efforts to prevent and respond to disease outbreaks in wild and domestic animals; and ubiquitous genomic sequencing that allow the reading of all genetic material from a single sample to improve early detection, pathogen characterization and epidemiological tracking.
The good news is that biotech and medtech companies, in cooperation with academia and the federal government, have demonstrated the capability and commitment to rise to the occasion. But long-term success requires that we prioritize innovation over incrementalism.
The mathematical calculation here is no longer speculative: legislators must spend the billions required to save millions of lives and trillions of dollars. The executive branch must dramatically improve coordination among agencies and with state, local, tribal, and territorial governments. And we need to do a better job in terms of global collaboration: in this age of global travel, viruses respect no political borders and can travel at the speed of jets.
Something else is required of our political class. It’s time for politicians to stop demonizing what is arguably America’s most indispensable industry in this emerging pandemic era. Too many politicians make contradictory comments when it comes to biopharma companies, alternately praising the Herculean response of industry in innovating vaccines and antivirals at lightning speed while advocating innovation-killing price controls that would cripple our ability to do it again.
I served in Congress during the September 11 attacks. We reorganized a huge part of our government apparatus and created the Department of Homeland Security, now the largest federal agency, to protect Americans from terrorists after airplane attacks that left some 3,000 Americans dead. By contrast, COVID-19 – an invisible enemy – has killed more than a million of us and counting, yet lawmakers on both sides of the aisle resist bold transformation while seeking to pass measures to disincentive investment in a bear market and kill innovation in the cradle.
Innumerable deadly viruses lurk in the bodies of wild animals. With the right human exposure and genetic mutations, another plague is inevitable. It could emerge at any time.
We have the capacity to fight back hard and fast. The question is whether we have the will to prepare. It remains to be seen whether the excruciating lessons learned from COVID-19 will inspire federal officials to take necessary actions, adopt necessary laws and provide necessary funding.
As Darwin famously observed, the survival of any species depends on its ability to adapt. That includes ours.