June 30, 2020

Chairman Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on COVID-19 and U.S. International Pandemic Preparedness, Prevention, and Response: Additional Perspectives

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today convened a second full committee hearing on COVID-19 and U.S. international pandemic preparedness, prevention, and response, with witness testimony from the Honorable Mark Dybul, M.D., co-director of the Center for Global Health Practice and Impact and professor in the Department of Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, M.D., director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Honorable Jimmy J. Kolker, former assistant secretary for global affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Mr. Jeremy Konyndyk, senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

Chairman Risch gave the following opening statement:

“This hearing will now come to order. I want to thank all of you participating. We have very important business before the committee today. This is the second in a series on the international response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we can do about it – the future of prevention preparedness, and response.

“Let me take just a moment to talk about what we’re attempting to do here. Around here in the Senate, exaggeration and hyperbole is the order of the day. So I’m always reluctant to say, this truly could be one of the most important things we, as members of this committee, do.

“What the world is experiencing today, what the United States of America is facing today, is one of the most significant challenges that a lot of us will face in our lifetime. The bad news is that it’s entirely possible it will happen again.

“I say this, of course, because the experts tell us that this virus that made the leap from one species to another, from the bat species to the human species, can very easily happen again. And there’s 2,000 of these viruses out there – we have no idea what they can do when they get into a human being. The bat populations, the experts and scientists tell us, have within their ranks about 2,000 different viruses.

“Having said that, we need to look forward. I want to stress what I’m trying to do with this – and what I hope all of us will join in trying to do – to look forward. There are a lot of hearings going on, there’s a lot of hyperbole going on, there’s a lot of finger pointing, and a lot of blame assignment. But that’s not what I’m trying to focus on here, and I hope we will all avoid that.

“Certainly, a person can’t help but think about how did this happen? Who’s responsible for this? Who could’ve done things better? We do want to see how we could do things better, but I would sincerely hope that all of us are committed to the idea that what we’re trying to do is to keep this from happening again. We’re not trying to tar and feather someone that should’ve done things better.

“Recently there’s been a number of criticisms levied against the World Health Organization (WHO). I’ve spent a considerable period of time talking to people at the WHO. I’ve been impressed with the fact that they themselves recognize that things should be looked at, and they, like us, would really like to see that things work better in the future. Heaven help us if this happens again.

“In any event, to that end, there has been legislation prepared – there’s been a number of pieces of legislation. I’m going to urge the committee in the strongest way possible, for everyone to get together and pull the wagon on this. Get to the place where we can have a piece of legislation that will actually help in the future.

“As I said, this future is so important. How we react the next time is going to be very important, particularly if it turns out to be a worse virus than the one we have now.

“The world is not going to know, probably, what we did. If we fail, they probably won’t even know that we made an effort. But all of us run for these offices because we want to make a difference, particularly into the future. This is our opportunity to do that.

“This is my 40th year in a Senate body – I led a Senate body for over two decades. I know good faith effort when I see it, and I’ve seen a lot of good faith effort here on a bipartisan basis to develop something for the future.

“Of the 22 members of this committee, there’s a tremendous pool of talent on both sides of the aisle. My ranking member, Senator Menendez, has spent many years in the service of the United States dealing with the challenges – and they are challenges that we face – with other countries. He brings that to the table and much more.

“Across this committee, we have people who have been deeply involved in the Committees on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, Homeland Security, Armed Services, Intelligence, and other committees. Everybody brings something to the table.

“What I’m hoping is we have a product that will reflect the best of all of us in bringing the matter into a bill. As I’ve said over and over again, the bill that myself, Senator Murphy, and Senator Cardin have introduced is written on paper, it is not written on stone. We want the best possible ideas and the best possible outcomes as we move forward.

“Everything’s on the table, there’s no pride of authorship here, and I hope everyone can set aside preconceived notions and move forward with what we need – obviously a more innovative approach to this problem.

“We are fortunate to have with us a panel of experts with an impressive range of expertise – from infectious disease detection and treatment, to diplomatic engagement and emergency response. We know that all of these are incredibly important as we put together a holistic approach to this problem.

“Each of you bring something unique to the table. Thank you for sharing your insights today.

“During our last hearing, we focused on a number of key issues, including the need for WHO reform. Again, simply because we talk about WHO reform, we don’t want to demonize people who made incredible efforts to try to address the problems we have today.

“I am aware of the challenges and differences several of our panelists faced when working with the WHO during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa – which ultimately led to a number of things that bring us to where we are here today.

“While some structural improvements have been made to the WHO since the Ebola situation, it appears we may be repeating history today – though on a much grander and deadlier scale. After Ebola, of course, the Global Health Security Agenda was formed and it didn’t get us where we need to be either.

“Some have suggested that the WHO has neither the mandate nor the capacity to hold countries accountable for failing to uphold obligations under the International Health Regulations (IHR). That can probably be fixed. As I’ve talked with the WHO, they’ve made credible cases as to why they couldn’t do some of the things that they really wanted to do.

“Others have suggested that the WHO does not have the will. That’s a harder fix, but again we need to focus on what we can do now. And so it’s only appropriate for us to recognize what the WHO is. It is a convening mechanism, a guardian of the IHR, and a clearinghouse of norms and best practices. We probably ought to examine our own consciences and ask if we’re asking the WHO to be something that it is not.

“I’ve repeatedly asked, “What entity do we call when an outbreak begins, before it gets out of control? What entity is the fire department?”

“Again, I want to especially say that we should avoid condemning what happened in the past and look forward to the future.

“I’ve repeatedly been disappointed by the response as to who is the fire department.

“One thing is clear – it’s not the WHO. At least not as it exists today. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed.

“So what entity is it? What entity responds to the alarm? If the mandate, capacity, and will do not yet exist, to whom and where should they be vested?

“That question is wide open, and the answer that we need, and the right answer, is not an answer that is dictated by politically taking sides.

“What entity raises the alarm? How can we improve and expand early warning at a global level, so we can get ahead of an outbreak before it spins out of control?

“The Global Health Security Agenda provides a useful framework for addressing these issues. How can we more effectively operationalize it?

“And how can we incentivize countries to prioritize global health security, strengthen preparedness and response, and share critical global health data?

“Is there a way we can better support countries with demonstrated will but low capacity?  

“And, importantly, how do we incentivize innovation, including for the development, manufacturing, and equitable deployment of vaccines and counter-measures? 

“These are difficult challenges that require serious solutions.

“While we are rightly focused on the immediate COVID-19 response – particularly as the Southern Hemisphere moves into the winter months – we cannot afford to wait.

“This is not our first pandemic and, unless we can figure out some solutions, it won’t be the last.

“We’ve put a number of ideas forward in a bipartisan bill, the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act. It’s a bill that that we hope everyone will take as a starting point and as a discussion point.

“I am hopeful that our discussion today will help us further refine the ideas in that bill, so we can answer these questions, chart a responsible path forward, save lives, and, ultimately, protect America from future waves of infection.

“I’ve been impressed with the way that our committee has been working together – we’re taking ideas from everyone. Senator Murphy, Senator Cardin, and I continue to meet to try to operationalize the ideas that we’re getting from other members of the committee.

“Again, I strongly urge that if we are to succeed, and we must succeed for the future of America, that we work on solutions and not necessarily on focusing on the failures of the recent response.

“With that, I thank everyone again for joining us today. I encourage everyone to work in good faith to try to actually reach some conclusion. As I said, I think it’s one of the most important things we’ll probably do with our service here in the U.S. Senate.

“With that, I will recognize Ranking Member Menendez.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. The witness testimonies are available on foreign.senate.gov.

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