There’s a growing clamor on Capitol Hill and elsewhere for creation of an independent body similar to the Robb-Silberman or 9/11 commissions to look into the origin of the COVID-19 virus that has taken the lives of more than 600,000 Americans, and more than 3.8 million people worldwide — the worst pandemic in more than a century.
The world needs to know whether the killer virus was of natural origin or was the result of a lab release from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a hypothesis for which evidence appears to be steadily mounting. Likewise, we must discover to what degree U.S. funding may have contributed to the development of the coronavirus itself.
We also need to learn how well our government responded to the contagion, and decide how we might do better next time. It seems inevitable there will be a next time, whether the result of a deliberate biological attack or not. The America public deserves to know that its government will be fully ready next time — and deserves to know who is to blame for the contagion this time.
The essential ground rules for an investigatory commission should be that it is independent and bipartisan; that it include health care experts but also experts in the field of emergency response, national security and law enforcement; and that its methods and results be made public. While no one who was directly involved in implementing the response to COVID-19 should sit on the commission itself, their testimony — including that of former President Trump — will be crucial for getting answers and learning lessons.
The commission’s agenda must be simple and clear. We need to know what happened, including the origin of the outbreak. We may never have the full story of what happened until China opens up the Wuhan lab facility to independent investigators. However, a COVID-19 commission could lay the groundwork for that investigation, by addressing the circumstantial evidence that the virus may have come from a lab, not a wet market. It also could offset the flawed World Health Organization (WHO) report on COVID-19’s origin, by giving the world an analysis that is honest and transparent.
We need to know how well our government and institutions responded. The overwhelming success of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine production known as Operation Warp Speed has overshadowed the multiple failures of government bureaucracies in being ready for a pandemic of this severity — and not only during the Trump administration.
For example, after the 2002-03 SARS pandemic, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned Congress that most hospitals “lack[ed] the capacity to respond to large-scale infectious disease outbreaks.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) predicted in 2007 that if a pandemic broke out, there would be a critical shortage of protective equipment. Neither Congress nor the Bush administration took action.
In 2009, after the H1N1 swine flu pandemic led to a multi-year backlog of N95 respirator mask orders, the Obama administration was advised to rebuild its federal stockpile. Nothing happened. When the coronavirus did hit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wasted time developing a test kit that turned out to be flawed — a decision that cost the U.S. its best chance of containing the spread.
We need to know how we can do better next time. Failures such as these are all too familiar in government — much like the intelligence community’s failure to “connect the dots” before the 9/11 attacks. That’s why a COVID-19 commission would need to focus on this third item on its agenda, and make concrete recommendations to address future outbreaks.
One issue is building operational capability, which means making sure administrative mechanisms, such as those that enabled the Trump administration to develop and manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine in record time, remain ready to respond to another flare-up of the virus or a new pandemic threat. Another is unity of command, the failure of which hindered the ability to distribute vaccines at the state level. Unity of command will be essential if federal and state authorities are to work together effectively during the next pandemic.
As with successful previous commissions, a COVID-19 commission’s work must be rigorous in research and analysis; comprehensive in its search for answers; and unsparing in its honesty. The 9/11 Commission took on the intelligence community for its failures. In 1986, the Rogers Commission on the Challenger disaster pulled no punches in its assessment of NASA’s negligence in risk assessment and launch decision-making.
The goal isn’t finding scapegoats but finding the truth. The immediate impact of this pandemic has been disastrous enough. Failing to learn from it — including to learn its origin — would extend that disaster for generations to come.
Read in The Hill