Senate explores US policies to handle global pandemics


AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

A bus leaves the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship at a port Sunday, Feb. 16, 2020, in Yokohama, near Tokyo. The U.S. says Americans aboard a quarantined ship will be flown back home on a chartered flight Sunday, but that they will face another two-week quarantine.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a roundtable hearing on Feb. 12 with top experts in the public health sector. The title of the hearing was “Are We Prepared? – Protecting the U.S. from Global Pandemics” and the experts discussed if the U.S. is in fact prepared for a global pandemic outbreak. This meeting was especially timely given the outbreak of COVID-19 virus, also known as the Coronavirus, in Wuhan, China and its rapid global spread. 

The experts made their opening statements , beginning with Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. “This is a deeply concerning event, this novel Coronavirus,” Gottlieb said. “We don’t understand its true severity at this point and its transmissibility, and I think we’re going to learn a lot more information in the coming weeks as we start to see outbreaks emerge in other parts of the world.” 

Gottlieb went on to highlight that the reason that this Coronavirus has been such trouble is that it is a novel virus, meaning the Coronavirus was transmitted from an animal to a human. According to the CDC, the animal that originated this strain of the Coronavirus is still unknown.

Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC from 2002 to 2009, followed Gottlieb with her own statement. Gerberding spoke on firsthand experience with the first Coronavirus epidemic, SARS-CoV, when it appeared in 2003. “We generally approach global outbreaks like this,” said Gerberding. “The first step is detection, and we’re fortunate that the virus has been observed and reported. The second is containing the virus at its source, and I don’t think we’ve seen a more dramatic effort to contain a virus that what’s going on right now. The third step is if we can’t contain it, how do we slow it down, and the final step is implementing countermeasures.”

Luciana Borio, director for medical and biodefense preparedness for the National Security Council from 2017-2019, said that we need to make sure the data surrounding the virus is correct. “We know that the numbers (of people infected) both inside and outside of China are likely much much larger,” said Borio. “Even though there’s a lot we don’t know, the features are very concerning for a pandemic and global spread.” 

The last two experts were Nikki Clowers, the director of United States Government Accountability Office’s health care team and Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense. After finishing their opening remarks, the experts all gave insight into certain issues regarding the Coronavirus in China. 

Gottlieb said that Wuhan, where the virus originated from, is a manufacturer for raw materials that make up the active ingredients in our medicine and that this might cause an issue further down the line if the virus isn’t contained. Gerberding also said that the virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days, and that we don’t know whether the majority of people infected present with mild or severe symptoms. Gottlieb also noted that the virus is only known to spread through droplet transmission, meaning that it is spread through respiratory droplets that come from coughing or sneezing. The CDC backs up this statement, and also says that they are unsure if the virus can be spread through surfaces with these droplets on them. 

The conversation then shifted to what the U.S. can do to stop the spread of the Coronavirus in the country. Gerberding said that the government needs to give the CDC more stable funding instead of only giving more funding during a crisis. “We have to plan for the possibility that we have thousands of cases,” George said. “We’ve been trained here to look at the data and assume that we don’t have the full picture and multiply by seven or eight. For every case we see there might be seven or eight that we don’t.” Clowers also offered a similar point to Gerberding, advocating for the government to give more funding to state and local public health organizations to deal with the crises without relying heavily on federal money.

The hearing begged the question: is the U.S. really prepared to handle a global pandemic? Todd Florin, an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University and an attending pediatric physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital  thinks so, at least for now. 

“The fact that only 15 cases have been identified in the United States tells us that the spread, to date, is being contained, but this could change at any time,” said Florin. “For most individual Americans, COVID-19 is an extremely low concern at this time, provided that they have not traveled to or from China or come into close contact with someone who has. Individual Americans are substantially more likely to be infected with influenza, which to date this season has led to 22 million illnesses, 210,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 deaths, 78 of whom are children.”  

With COVID-19 making its way through Asia and reaching out into other parts of the world, remaining cautious and staying informed on the spread is essential. While the virus may be contained in the U.S. right now, it could potentially change in the future if more cases arise.