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Risch: A Grim Anniversary, A Promising Path Forward

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BOISE, Idaho – U.S. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, today published an op-ed in The Hill reflecting on the second anniversary of the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and advocating for his International Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19 Response Act, comprehensive legislation to improve global health and pandemic preparedness before the next outbreak. 

As seen in The Hill:

By: U.S. Senator Jim Risch – March 11, 2022

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease, to be a global pandemic. In the two years since that declaration, the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved into the largest, most destructive global health emergency in more than a century.

More than 430 million people have been infected and more than 6 million people have died. Economies have been upended, livelihoods shattered, families isolated, and children have been kept out of school. A remarkable collaboration of governments, scientists, and private sector partners has yielded vaccines and therapeutics, but the emergence of disease variants continues to threaten progress. Even the most optimistic voices warn that it will take years to fully recover from a global health catastrophe of this nature and scale.  

Catastrophic failures at all levels of the existing global health security architecture accelerated the international spread of COVID-19. First, the Chinese government decided to prioritize safeguarding its own perceived legitimacy and reputation above upholding its commitments under the International Health Regulations. China’s leaders deliberately withheld or delayed release of vital global health data, silenced doctors and journalists, bought up personal protective equipment across Asiadelayed the deployment of WHO experts, and spread damaging disinformation. The WHO failed, and continues to fail, to hold China accountable for its outright obstructionism.

At the same time, existing early warning systems failed. Rapid response mechanisms failed. Global supply chains failed. Even within our own government, coordination and communication structures failed. Unless we do something, this will happen again.

This is why, over the past two years, I have been leading an effort to help the United States and our international partners get ahead of the next pandemic. First, I pressed the WHO to conduct a comprehensive, scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese government has pulled out all the stops to ensure that this never happens, including by delaying and denying access to critical sites and data by WHO investigators.

Second, I pressed the WHO to launch an independent, interim review of its own response to the COVID-19 outbreak so we could figure out what worked, what didn’t, and what we need to do to better prepare in the future. The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response has since released its report, which recognized that pandemic preparedness “is not a responsibility of the health sector alone”, acknowledged the need for structural reforms at the WHO, and made recommendations for improved transparency, accountability, and early warning.

I also introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen the ability of the United States and our international partners to detect, prevent, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks before they cross borders and become pandemics. This bill, now known as the International Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19 Response Act, provides much-needed leadership and direction for U.S. global health security efforts overseas, while also incentivizing greater leadership and investment in global health security by others.

While it would be unreasonable to assume that the U.S. Congress can legislate its way out of future pandemics, this bill provides valuable tools and authorities to help protect Americans from infectious diseases that do not respect borders and threaten us all. While Congress rarely makes headlines for timely achievements, it’s particularly disheartening that two years into this pandemic we still have not passed legislation that will prevent the next infectious disease outbreak from destabilizing the world in the way that COVID-19 has. Remarkably, House Democrats continue to obstruct bipartisan legislation that builds upon proven models and reflects priorities set out by both the Trump and Biden administrations. The Biden administration’s own National Security Memorandum mirrored my approach to this issue. It is essential that Congress and the administration unite to enact this vital legislation without further delay.

On this grim anniversary, we should all take a minute to reflect upon the true cost of weak global health security, including the loss of more than 950,000 American men, women, and children. We should express appreciation for the millions of lives saved by the heroic acts of health workers, first responders, and front line workers keeping vital services flowing. Yet, to truly honor the victims and the heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need more than quiet reflection. We need action. I intend to act and invite my colleagues in Congress, the executive branch, and our international partners, including the WHO, to do the same.

Read the op-ed in The Hill here.

Senator Risch’s International Pandemic Preparedness and COVID-19 Response Act was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 28, 2021. Text of the legislation can be found here.