America has a proud history of taking on grand technological challenges in times of need. The Manhattan Project to split the atom. The Interstate Highway System to connect the entire nation, and the Apollo Program to go to the moon. They share similarities in scale, ambition and necessity, and demonstrate our ability to engage in large-scale projects using cutting-edge technology to meet national needs.
America’s Apollo Program succeeded in its first moonshot less than a decade after President John Kennedy challenged the country to make it happen.
The audacity of that goal inspires us to issue a similar challenge: To end the threat of debilitating and deadly pandemics.
Today, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, which we have co-chaired for the past six years, releases a report called “The Apollo Program for Biodefense: Winning the Race Against Biological Threats.” If the U.S. government acts now, our recommendations could effectively end the era of pandemic threats before the next decade begins and eliminate U.S. vulnerabilities to biological attacks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 2.1 million people around the world, ravaged health systems and devastated economies. It also has exposed destabilizing divisions within and among countries and revealed domestic and global weaknesses in biodefense. We must do everything in our power to ensure that the harm caused by COVID-19 never happens again.
Catastrophic infectious disease outbreaks occur regularly throughout history and experts agree that they will occur with greater frequency because of modern travel and international commerce. We spend billions preparing for other threats to American lives, such as war, but little to prevent infectious diseases, which tragically kill more people. Spending on biological risk reduction would be far less than the significant cost of continuing to let future pandemics harm our people and weaken our nation again.
Pandemic has exposed weaknesses
We warned in 2015 that the U.S. was inadequately prepared for biological threats in our baseline report, “A National Blueprint for Biodefense: Leadership and Major Reform Needed to Optimize Efforts.” More than five years later, COVID-19 has validated our original findings. The pandemic exposed tremendous national vulnerabilities and weaknesses in America’s ability to defend itself against, and respond to, biological threats.
But we have seen that new technologies hold great promise. Within weeks of recognizing the existence of the novel coronavirus, scientists mapped its entire genome and developed and produced vaccines faster than ever before. They accomplished these previously unimaginable feats because of forward-looking programs such as the Human Genome Project.
But we desperately need new strategies, countermeasures and defenses. Through an Apollo Program for Biodefense, we can make invisible biological enemies visible and take pandemic threats off the table by 2030.
The Apollo Program for Biodefense could achieve multiple groundbreaking technological goals in support of a single, overarching mission: to gain technological superiority over biological threats. We envision a time when people look back and wonder how we ever let infectious diseases wreak such havoc on society and how we tolerated seasonal influenza, let alone COVID-19 and biological attacks.
To achieve the results sought by The Apollo Program for Biodefense, the commission urges the Biden administration and Congress to include funds for this program as part of a unified biodefense budget and in the President’s Budget Request; appropriate long-term, multi-year funding for the program; and fully implement the remaining recommendations we laid out in our 2015 National Blueprint for Biodefense.
Develop tools for rapid response
With ambitious technological goals in mind, the commission’s recommended program could deploy medical countermeasures within days or even in advance of a biological event, detect a novel biological threat at the first human cluster, and enable the public to gather in spaces built to prevent pathogen transmission.
Now is the time to advance technological solutions to the horrific problems COVID-19 has caused. When the original Apollo Program began, much of the know-how needed to get to the Moon did not exist.
By contrast, today we have many of the scientific capabilities we need to achieve the mission of The Apollo Program for Biodefense. Now we must bring them together to achieve our next great national goal — freedom from fear of infectious disease.
Former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, co-chair the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense.