May 12, 2021

Chairman Menendez’s Opening Remarks at Hearing on the COVID-19 Pandemic and the U.S. International Response

WASHINGTON — U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a full Committee hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic and the U.S. international response. Testifying before the Committee were the Honorable Gayle E. Smith, Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security, U.S. Department of State, and Mr. Jeremy Konyndyk, Executive Director of the COVID-19 Task Force, United States Agency for International Development.

“I am pleased that the Biden administration has plans that are working: As vaccinations roll out here in the United States, cities and schools are re-opening,” Chairman Menendez said, citing the success of the American Rescue Plan in helping combat the pandemic and sending relief to the families, communities and businesses hit hardest by COVID-19. “However, as this pandemic has put into stark reality for every American — what happens in the rest of the world directly impacts us here at home. And in parts of the rest of the world, the pandemic continues to rage.”

Chairman Menendez also announced that he is currently negotiating a new, comprehensive global health legislation with Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-Idaho) aimed at strengthening efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, improving U.S. preparedness for future pandemic threats, and boosting U.S. support for countries recovering from the coronavirus.

Earlier this year, Menendez also introduced bipartisan legislation creating an independent, non-partisan commission, closely modeled after the 9/11 Commission that investigated the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, to assess the nation’s pandemic preparedness and response, and provide recommendations to improve our country’s readiness for future public health crises.

Below are Chairman Menendez’s full opening remarks as delivered.

“Ms. Smith, Mr. Konyndyk, thank you for joining us today to discuss the Biden administration’s efforts to address the international spread of COVID-19.

Gayle Smith is the Coordinator for Global COVID Response and Health Security at the U.S. Department of State. She is currently on leave from the ONE Campaign, where she has served as the President and CEO since March 2017. Prior to the ONE Campaign, she served in the Obama administration as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Development and Democracy at the National Security Council, and as Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Jeremy Konyndyk is the Executive Director of the USAID COVID-19 Task Force. He served four years in the Obama administration as the director of USAID’s Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, where he led the U.S. government’s response to international disasters including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Before rejoining the federal government, Mr. Konyndyk was a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Thank you both for your willingness to serve once again our nation we appreciate it very much. 

The last time this Committee held a COVID hearing—June of 2020—there were nearly 8 million cases of COVID-19 around the globe. More than 2 million of those cases were in the United States, and at that time the disease had claimed more than 115,000 lives in this country alone. Nearly a year later, this deadly disease has killed more than 3 million people; nearly 600,000 of them our fellow Americans. In addition to the devastating personal toll, the pandemic has had a catastrophic economic impact. 

 

According to the International Monetary Fund, the global economy contracted by -3.5 percent in 2020 alone: a severe shock acutely and adversely affecting youth, the poor, and those working in the informal economy. The U.S. economy shrank an almost equal amount: -3.4 percent in 2020.

I am pleased that the Biden administration has plans that are working: As vaccinations roll out here in the United States, cities and schools are re-opening. The American Rescue Plan, which we passed in March, puts another $1,400 in the pockets of working people, keeps the unemployed afloat, and helps millions of Americans avoid eviction and foreclosure. It invests billions to help schools reopen safely and provides direct aid to state and local governments across America reeling from the enormous costs of responding to this public health crisis. 

However, as this pandemic has put into stark reality for every American — what happens in the rest of the world directly impacts us here at home. And in parts of the rest of the world, the pandemic continues to rage.

In India, Brazil, and other countries, COVID-19 cases are surging, taking hundreds of thousands of lives in the past few weeks and months alone. Less than 10 percent of the population in India has received one vaccine dose. And the regional implications of India’s outbreak for Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan are alarming. The entire continent of Africa has only administered 2 percent of all the vaccine doses administered globally so far. 

COVAX, the organization created to provide equal access to COVID vaccinations worldwide, has shipped over 53 million vaccines to 121 participant nations. But this is a drop in the ocean compared to the approximately 1.2 billion administered around the world and a far cry from the amount needed to provide herd immunity in those countries.

In short, the global fight against the virus is far from over. But we must rise to the challenge because the longer the virus circulates, the greater the chance that more virulent and vaccine-resistant variants will develop, continuing to place American lives at risk. 

I believe that fight involves looking forward as well as understanding how we got here. The American people—and the world—deserve answers about the origins of the pandemic. The Strategic Competition Act of 2021, which this committee passed by a vote of 21-1, directs the Director of National Intelligence to provide a report with those answers, not to engage in a blame game, but because we must understand the true origins of COVID-19 to ensure we are taking appropriate steps to avoid future pandemics.

Additionally, Senator Collins and I introduced the bipartisan National Coronavirus Commission Act with a companion bill in the House. Our bill would create a nonpartisan Commission, modeled on the 9/11 Commission, to examine the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in the United States and abroad. The Commission would examine the United States’ domestic and international response to COVID-19 from all angles, including international public health surveillance, early warning systems, intergovernmental coordination, foreign aid, and global supply chains. The Commission would provide recommendations to Congress to prevent future pandemics, protect the health and economic security of the United States, and ultimately reestablish the United States as the global leader in public health.

And let’s be clear, we will need resources to do all of this. Those of us who supported the international spending included in the American Rescue Plan and beyond that understand the importance of it. Ranking Member Risch and I have begun the process of developing bipartisan legislation aimed at strengthening efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuring we are better prepared to face future pandemic threats, and helping countries around the world recover from this one. 

In light of all of that, I convened today’s hearing to address three critical questions:

How can we meaningfully slow and ultimately stop the spread of this pandemic once and for all, and what resources are needed to do so?

What steps do we need to take to support and enhance recovery around the world?

What must we do to ensure that the U.S. and our partners and allies are best prepared to prevent, detect and respond to future pandemics?

Once again let me welcome our witnesses. We look forward to hearing from each of them about the Biden administration’s strategy to lead international efforts on an improved pandemic response. With that let me recognize the Ranking Member Senator Risch.”

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