May 12, 2021

Ranking Member Risch Remarks at Hearing on the COVID-19 Pandemic and the International Response

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today gave remarks at a hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic and the international response. The committee heard witness testimony from the Honorable Gayle E. Smith, coordinator for global COVID response and health security, and Mr. Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director of the COVID-19 task force.

Ranking Member Risch gave the following remarks:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

“I recently looked back at my notes from the two hearings we held last June on the U.S. international response to COVID-19. Though a lot has changed and the United States finally appears to be turning a corner, too much remains the same.

“Americans have grown weary and are anxious to get back to life as normal.

“We have to get ahead of variants that may be even more dangerous than the original strain that shuttered schools and businesses, isolated families, and upended the global economy last year.

“Science tells us the best way to do that is to tackle vaccine hesitancy here at home, while accelerating efforts to expand access to vaccines overseas. One need look no further than India to see why it’s so important to tackle both of these imperatives at the same time and now.

“Congress has provided more than $16 billion in aid to try to contain this pandemic overseas, $4 billion of which is slated for the COVAX partnership for vaccines. I am eager to hear how these resources are being prioritized, coordinated, implemented, and, importantly, overseen.

“The administration also recently announced that 60 million doses of surplus U.S. vaccines will be donated overseas.

“I’m hoping to hear from Ms. Smith today, the coordinator for global COVID response and health security and the lead on U.S. “vaccine diplomacy”, how those resources will be prioritized. Who will get what, when, and how? And how will all of this U.S. assistance be effectively branded?

“I also hope to hear about the anticipated outcomes of the upcoming G20 Summit on Global Health on May 21st, and the World Health Assembly on May 24 th.

“Finally, I hope we all learn more about how the administration is incorporating pandemic preparedness into its current response. I’ve consistently argued that the COVID-19 pandemic is not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last pandemic to threaten the American people and indeed the world.

“We have to get serious about preparedness and prevention, so we can get ahead of the next outbreak before it becomes a global pandemic.

“We need a reformed World Health Organization that is fit for purpose.

“We need to figure out a way to hold countries accountable for failing to uphold commitments to the International Health Regulations, including by actively suppressing global health data.

“We need better early warning systems so we can identify threats in real time, as they emerge.

“And we need a “fire department” capable of responding to those warnings, so they can put out the flames before they spin out of control.

“The very recently released study that the WHO commissioned really underscores how important that fire department is to getting on top of this quickly.

“I was pleased to see the president’s first National Security Memorandum included:

  • A commitment to better coordinate U.S. global health security and diplomacy overseas;
  • A prominent leadership role to be played by the Department of State;
  • And an interest in establishing a financing mechanism to help committed partners close the gaps in health security that threaten us all.

“These are concrete ideas grounded in nearly two decades of experience in combatting another global health threat: the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

“Those of us who proposed and included these same propositions in legislation that has been offered are pleased that the president has embraced and followed suit on those proposals.

“As noted just now by the chairman, he and I are working on further legislation to move the ball forward. With the administration having embraced the proposals that all of us seem to be on board with, this should be a constructive, positive, and successful enterprise.

“At the same time, I am disappointed to hear that the administration is advocating to unilaterally surrender U.S. intellectual property to China. The American free enterprise system created the vaccines that are saving lives and restoring freedom around the world. All the U.S. government had to do was ease regulation and get out of the way. The challenges now relate to logistics – not innovation. I understand this is a work in progress and I’m going to watch it carefully. I believe that going overboard on this will undermine the U.S. companies and that’s deeply unfortunate.

“I look forward to a robust discussion today about these issues, and yield the rest of my time.

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

These remarks have been lightly edited for clarity. Witness testimony is available on  foreign.senate.gov.

###