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March 27, 2020

Dealing With the Next Outbreak

COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic to inflict damage on people and society.

One thing to keep in mind about the Wuhan coronavirus is that it won’t be our last pandemic. We don’t know when or how or what, but the next pandemic is most assuredly out there.

Of course, we’ve also learned a lot from this pandemic. First of all, Americans can be very creative. We’ve seen techniques developed to make the most out of respirators. We’ve learned that anesthesia machines can be converted into respirators. And many of our companies have re-tooled to provide the specific equipment needed to fight the pandemic.

Another vital lesson is that much of this innovation has taken off due to the Trump administration having waived certain burdensome regulations and thereby allowed businesses — large and small — to turn shortages into surplus.

Clearly, some of this deregulation should be left in place. But change is needed at the agency responsible for dealing with this outbreak in the first place: The Centers for Disease Control.

Going forward, the CDC should be focused on dealing with infectious diseases and keeping outbreaks from becoming epidemics or pandemics. This means getting out of the gun-control business and any other distractions, and focusing on three tasks: first, making its research into infectious diseases publicly available; second, gathering intelligence on potential outbreaks to make sure we don’t see another China-like cover-up; and third, serving as a clearinghouse for information should a disease reach the United States.

But at least two other agencies must also change. One is the Food and Drug Administration, which must shorten the time-to-market for treatments and vaccines while ensuring that drugs we know to be safe — drugs currently in use — are readily deployable against new diseases. This means shaking up the way the FDA does business, but this is clearly an agency that needs to be leaning forward and streamlining its processes.

The other agency in need of reform is the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which should be expanded in two ways. The first is to create a larger active-duty component. How? By creating a version of ROTC for doctors and other medical specialties that funds medical school in exchange for a commitment of either 10 years of active service or 20 years in the Ready Reserve Corps. The second is to bring back the Inactive Reserve Corps to join the Ready Reserve Corps.

To encourage medical professionals to join the Corps, the government might fund part of either medical-school loans or malpractice insurance in addition to providing pay similar to that of a member of the National Guard. This costs money, of course, but look at the price we’re paying for COVID-19 right now.

Finally, we can no longer let the clearly compromised World Health Organization continue to operate as it has. If the United Nations is unable or unwilling to reform this body, then the U.S. must establish a new organization — one that will, by necessity, comprise a “coalition of the willing.”

Again, the next pandemic is out there. And when it hits, our nation’s readiness — as good as it already was — can and must be much improved.

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