The U.S. Has No Plan to Prevent the Next Pandemic
We treat pandemics as inevitable when we could commit to averting them.
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Our institutions are poised to repeat the mistakes of COVID-19.
But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
More than 6 million COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed worldwide, but in many ways that number severely understates the death toll. Experts also look at “excess mortality”—how many more people died as a result of COVID-19 than the number of people who would have died if the coronavirus had never materialized. That means counting people who died because of overcrowded hospitals, underlying illnesses exacerbated by an infection, economic deprivation and food insecurity, and other knock-on effects of the disease. One estimate suggests that between 14 million and 25 million total human beings lost their lives because of the virus.
Not only have millions died; we’ve lost trillions in economic output, countless families have been scarred by loss, and a generation of youth has seen childhood and education interrupted. The devastatingly personal nature of this crisis, even to the wealthy and well connected, can’t be overstated. And yet, there’s little evidence that our current political system has adjusted to take long-term threats any more seriously.
Growing up, I remember hearing a common refrain from environmentalists: We would take action on climate change only when the water hit our ankles. Once the crisis presented less as a hypothetical and more as an immediate danger, the public would pay serious attention and invest in countering it. Today, I’m not even sure that’s true.
When the pandemic arrived in the United States, we did take quick action passing unprecedented financial relief, including extended unemployment benefits that helped keep Americans afloat and buffered the hit to our economy. Our short-term policy response to address and mitigate the harm of COVID-19 was admirable—but it can obscure how little we’ve done, mainly because of congressional inaction, to address the risks of future pandemics.
“We lost the war on COVID two months in, when we didn’t stop it from spreading outside of Wuhan,” Gabe Bankman-Fried, the founder and director of the advocacy group Guarding Against Pandemics, told me. “We’re already losing whatever the next war is, because it can take a few years to ramp up the technology and readiness … The time to panic about the next thing is now.” Bankman-Fried’s point is not that policy makers (or anyone) should run around like their hair is on fire, but that dealing with pandemics is about thinking long-term. Policy makers are focused on preparing for future pandemics—treating them as inevitable—rather than committing to preventing them from happening in the first place. Preventing them would mean doing much more to invest in testing, tracing, and developing early-warning systems.
In August 2021, my colleague Robinson Meyer reported that Congress had slashed pandemic-preparedness funding during negotiations over a potential reconciliation package. In his article he posed an important question:
What reforms, if any, will the federal government make to its public-health agencies after their significant failures over the past 16 months? After 2,977 people were murdered on September 11, 2001, Congress started a war and revised the country’s approach to policing, surveillance, and national security within six weeks; it opened a new federal agency and commissioned a bipartisan fact-finding panel within 14 months … Yet Congress has demonstrated little haste so far in determining what went wrong and how the country’s public-health institutions can prevent it from happening again.
Now, just days after the World Health Organization’s director-general has deemed monkeypox a public-health emergency of international concern, I fear that the answer to Rob’s question is clear: We’re not going to do much of anything at all.
Nikki Teran, a geneticist and senior biosecurity fellow at the Institute for Progress, explained to me that our lackluster response to monkeypox outbreaks is largely because of administrative failures. “We have treatments and vaccines, but they haven’t been able to be mobilized in an effective way,” she explained. Further, America’s test and trace failures at the beginning of COVID-19 are seemingly being repeated now. A prominent AIDS activist said, “We’re close to the point where we’re wanting to call for the resignations of people we consider friends” in government. “It is Covid 2.0. It’s basically a copy and paste.”
One clear example of this is the FDA’s process for inspecting a vaccine-manufacturing facility in Denmark. In late June, public-health leaders called on the FDA to forgo a lengthy inspection and approval process for the facility, which held more than 1 million monkeypox doses, given the urgent nature of the crisis. (The European Medicines Agency, or EMA, had already inspected the facility and found it in compliance.) Instead, the FDA took weeks to clear the way for the vaccine; as an official told The Washington Post, the agency is “aspiring to have the process completed by the end of July.” The FDA said that it had accelerated the inspection, originally scheduled to take place this fall. But it has yet to explain why the EMA authorization was insufficient, especially when precedent exists for relying on it. Meanwhile, monkeypox cases continue to soar.
Just last month Bill Gates told Time that we got “lucky” with COVID-19. He wasn’t downplaying the horror of the disease. Instead, he was pointing out just how much deadlier it could have been. Even now, this monkeypox outbreak looks to be less deadly than worst-case scenarios. But eventually, as Teran warns, “we’re going to run out of luck.”
- Ukraine is gathering forces in Russian-occupied Kherson—the first city that fell to Russian forces—as it prepares for a counteroffensive.
- New evidence released by a member of the January 6 committee reveals that President Donald Trump removed lines calling for the rioters’ prosecution from the prepared remarks he gave the day after the attack.
- During his trip to Canada, Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous people for the “evil” that Christian residential schools inflicted upon Indigenous children.
- Humans Being: Nathan Fielder’s new HBO series, The Rehearsal, is a litmus test for cruelty, Jordan Calhoun argues.
- I Have Notes: Nicole Chung advises two aspiring writers on the art of pitching—and how to handle rejection.
- Work in Progress: Why, exactly, was your new home so expensive? Derek Thompson explains the housing-affordability crisis.
- Up for Debate: Conor Friedersdorf rounds up 13 reader views on directing tax money to private schools.
From above, an open-cut coal mine looks like some geological aberration, a sort of man-made desert, a recent volcanic eruption, or a kind of terra forming. When the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht first gazed at a series of such mines while driving through his home region in southeast Australia, he stopped and got out of his car, overcome “at the desolation of this once beautiful place,” he wrote in his book, Earth Emotions.
More From The Atlantic
Read. A poem by Jonathan Musgrove, published in The Atlantic in 2008.
“The day I saw the emperor’s clay soldiers / I thought I understood the end of things.”
Watch. Need a new reality-TV show? 90 Day Fiance’s ninth season is airing now, and it’s not all fluff. The show has a surprisingly complex history—and delivers insights into immigration and democracy in America.
This is my last day writing for The Atlantic Daily! Thanks for reading. I’ll leave you with this study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, which piqued my interest over the weekend. The economists looked at people who had joined summer 2020 Black Lives Matter protests as well as those who had protested against COVID-19 public-health measures, and determined that both sets of protesters were representative of the U.S. population—even more than voters on some demographic dimensions. They also found something that really surprised me: “Attending a Black Lives Matter protest increases the likelihood of attending a protest calling for fewer public health restrictions.” The researchers note that their findings contradict the idea that these protesters represent violent or radical fringe groups.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.