By Jeffrey Marburg-Goodman
Most of the chatter after the recent Vice Presidential debate was about temperament and messaging, such as the relative tranquility exhibited by Mike Pence and the direct-to-camera strategy carried out by Kamala Harris. Amid all that (and more), one of the debate’s forgotten moments may have been the following three sentences uttered by Senator Harris:
“There was a team of disease experts that President Obama and Vice President Biden dispatched to China to monitor what is now predictable and what might happen. T[rump] pulled them out. We now are looking at 210,000 Americans who have lost their lives.”
We are led back, once again, to the biggest issue of the current Presidential campaign: this Administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, both before and after it swept into the United States early this year. Much has been written about the Trump Administration’s missed opportunities in early 2020—failures as simple as the President’s unwillingness to model good mask-wearing behavior and as momentous as his refusal to federalize testing and other needs early on in this World War II-level crisis.
What has received less attention are the many pre-covid safeguards that were actually dismantled or shunned by this Administration and Congressional Republicans in the months and years that came before the advent of Covid-19. It may come as a surprise that Democratic nominee Joe Biden was directly responsible for these safeguards.
First and foremost was a prescient effort by one Senator Biden to meet the very moment we are now in: his championing of an initiative called the Global Pathogen Surveillance Act, or GPSA. In 2003 and then again in 2005 and 2007—this Presidential candidate doesn’t give up easily—Biden introduced the GPSA, to help enhance disease surveillance worldwide. According to a report that Biden produced at the time, this measure would help recognize and contain infectious disease outbreaks such as the SARS coronavirus, by linking up countries like China to an already-existing global health surveillance network.
Notably, the GPSA was designed “to enhance the capability of the international community to detect, identify, and contain infectious disease outbreaks, whether the cause of those outbreaks is intentional or natural in origin.” Does this sound like something we could have used in late 2019 and early 2020? Typical of Biden, the Act was a bipartisan effort, introduced together with red-state Senators Bill Frist and Dick Lugar. The bill passed the Senate—only to be rejected by the Republican-led House of the time.
While the GPSA died at the hands of narrow-minded Members of Congress over a decade ago, that effort lived on in the form of “PREDICT,” a taxpayer-funded program carried out and overseen by our Government’s international development agency in Washington, and especially at U.S. embassies and missions overseas. From 2009 to 2019—for the entire span of the Obama-Biden Administration, and beyond—PREDICT provided global health surveillance by specifically studying diseases in animals that may infect humans, and training countries to detect and respond to them early on.
If still functioning in late 2019, PREDICT would have allowed our country to identify Covid-19, and prepare for its onslaught. In fact, one of the dozens of overseas labs where our tax dollars supported PREDICT’s interdiction efforts was the very Wuhan lab that eventually identified the new coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
It is one of the cruel ironies of our current situation that the PREDICT program was shut down by this Administrationexactly a year ago, mere weeks before the emergence of Covid-19. When PREDICT’s field work was prematurely ended in October 2019, dozens of scientists were laid off, and the United States lost its “eyes and ears” in Wuhan—undercutting Trump’s argument that China is to blame for the initial spread of Covid-19.
Make no mistake: the shut-down of PREDICT was a massive blunder, fully equivalent to a decision to defund a CIA or DOD program that would give us an early warning of a coming military offensive by one of our sworn enemies.
Over the 10 years of its existence, the PREDICT program cost American taxpayers about $20 million per year, and resulted in the discovery of 1000 previously unknown viruses, including a new form of Ebola. Compare that cost to the trillions of dollars we have spent, not to mention the anguish, sickness and lives lost, affecting millions of people, that has occurred as a result of this terrible disease.
Kamala Harris was specifically referring to PREDICT when she said the above words during the debate. When, in the coming year, we have finally vanquished the most pernicious plague of our times, we’ll need to rely on the vision, foresight and governance skills of leaders who actually do something to help meet the shared challenges of our still-great country—and above all, to always “meet the moment” of an unknown, yet largely predictable, future.
Jeffrey Marburg-Goodman served as legal counsel in the Obama Administration and was a foreign policy adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign.