Taking Inventory: Establishing a National Commission to Assess COVID-19 Pandemic Response and Preparedness

Keila Miles, PhD

*This piece reflects the opinions of the author.

For just over a year now, an invisible, deadly enemy has wreaked havoc around the world. Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) in March of 2020, COVID-19 has killed millions, devastated communities, and ravaged the economy. This microscopic enemy, in the form of a virus, has infected nearly 29 million people in the U.S. and claimed the lives of over 520,000 Americans — a number that surpasses combat fatalities in the Vietnam War. As this piece is being written, the U.S. leads the globe in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. Given the alarming mortality rate and markedly high plateau in COVID-19 infections (50,0000 new infections per day), it is clear that our country’s response to COVID-19 has fallen short. 

This failed response cannot be left unexamined or unexplained. Now is the time to determine what went wrong and how. 

In 2002, a bipartisan commission was established to rigorously examine the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The fruits of the commission were invaluable. The recommendations shaped important policies and led to significant structural and operational changes at the federal level, triggering the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. While it is not possible to truly quantify the impact of implementing these recommendations since the prevalence of post-9/11 terrorism could not be predicted, national security has been enhanced and our resilience to disasters strengthened, which has (hopefully) reduced the risk of terrorist attacks. 

It has been debated and discussed among concerned citizens and elected officials alike that Congress should form an independent bipartisan commission to provide a detailed account of the nation's response to COVID-19. We cannot afford to let lessons learned from this pandemic go unheeded — a commission that can deliver an evidence-based, unvarnished analysis that informs long-term strategy would be key in preventing future disasters, guiding new policies, and potentially saving lives. 

To be effective, the commission needs to rise above partisan disputation. If and when fingers are pointed, the intent should be to constructively identify and critique missteps so that assessing the core issues of the pandemic response remains the focal point. 

The mission and objectives of a COVID-19 commission should incorporate guidance from public health experts, industry leaders, and stakeholders. Appointing individuals from diverse professional backgrounds, representing expertise in the fields of policymaking, biological science, public health, emergency preparedness, epidemiology, medicine, and academia will allow for a more comprehensive assessment of the nation's response to COVID-19. Additionally, the U.S. is well-positioned to glean knowledge from other countries that have successfully lowered their COVID-19 cases and returned to normal. America has the capacity and the resources in human capital to be resistant to a pandemic of this magnitude in the future.

Legislation has been introduced in both chambers of Congress to create a national commission to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Common themes of the pieces of legislation include investigating the facts and circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic; evaluating the response to the pandemic; reporting findings; and making recommendations that will prevent similar outbreaks from occurring in the future. Despite the promising nature of these proposed bills, no steps have been taken toward actually standing up such a commission. Time is of the essence — the longer we lack a clear path forward, the longer COVID-19 remains a threat to public health and the economy. If we do not commit to learning from the current pandemic, the more ill-prepared we will be for the next.   

De-escalating the COVID-19 crisis is a top priority to President Joe Biden. As president-elect, he formed the Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board in November 2020. The task force was composed of 13 of the nation’s leading health experts, scientists, and physicians, and their objective was to assist the new administration in developing policies that will address the spread of the virus, eliminate health disparities, and create a path towards reopening schools and businesses. The group has since dissolved and many of its members have been installed in the President’s administration, serving as scientific, health equity, and policy advisors. 

Complementary to these efforts, establishing a national COVID-19 commission would provide a detailed account of the nation’s response to the pandemic and illuminate areas for improvement. Enacting bipartisan legislation in this regard is essential to mitigating the damaging effects of the pandemic both now, and in the future.  

This blog post was written by Dr. Keila Miles, Science Policy Fellow at Research!America. The Science Policy Fellowship is sponsored by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She completed her doctoral work in Neuroscience at University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine in 2020. 

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Without research, there is no hope.
The Honorable Paul G. Rogers