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Looking for Trouble: The United States Needs Leaders Who Will Seek Out Emerging Threats and Use Science and Collaboration to Create Policy Solutions

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nathan Myers 
October 17, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated the critical value of leaders who can identify impending threats, use evidence of these threats to get them on the policy agenda and mobilize actions at all levels of government to meet the challenge. A story by Maryn McKenna published by Wired reports that the U.S. National Institutes of Health is investing $17 million this year and making a 5 year investment of $82 million to create 11 research nodes as part of an international network (CREID) to detect zoonotic pathogens, a network which includes partners in China.

While this may seem like a step toward proactive protection, McKenna’s article notes the history of the Trump administration dissolving the pandemic unit in the National Security Council and taking steps to end funding for a program called PREDICT, which also had the mission of detecting viruses capable of animal-to-human transmission. More recently, earlier in 2020, the Trump administration chose not to take a number of actions in regard to issues like testing and contact tracing that are believed to have contributed to the spread of COVID-19. Such measures continue to be a source of debate in the federal government today.

Recent experiences with viruses, from SARS to Zika, having a limited effect on the continental United States may have shaped our perspective on whether infectious diseases belong on the institutional agenda. (Territories like Puerto Rico get hit much harder by viruses like Zika). B. Guy Peters notes that whether or not an issue is placed on the institutional agenda for action is affected by four factors: severity, concentration of victims, how widespread the issue is and the visibility of the problem. In regard to COVID-19, the severity of the illness in terms of mortality and long-term repercussions continues to be a matter of debate in the media. Initially high geographic concentrations of victims in urban areas like New York City captured media attention, as the effects of the virus were more visible than they are in rural areas where the impacts are more diffuse. Many still have the perception that the elderly are really the only population group at risk, which is limiting to the response. Until the public widely accepts that that zoonotic viruses are policy problems for which government can and should find a solution, as Thomas Birkland describes, they will be treated as conditions.

Given the difficulties of keeping an on-going pandemic on the public agenda, it will likely be more challenging to maintain funding for searching out the next one. As McKenna describes in her story, politics can all too easily derail such efforts, such as the federal government threatening to rescind a research grant awarded to EcoHealth Alliance because of their collaboration with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Such actions not only undermine the effectiveness of infectious disease surveillance and confidence in the long-term value of international collaboration, but also undermine the degree to which the public will regard an infectious disease emergency like COVID-19 as a real policy problem. Alternatively, such actions could lead members of the public to regard COVID-19 as a policy problem in the wrong sense (such as misleading arguments that COVID-19 was weaponized or manufactured). History has shown that the public will support proactive protective measures like disease surveillance if they regard the threat to be credible. Unfortunately, the Trump administration continues to subvert efforts to contain the virus, contributing to a political environment where the new surveillance funds could be cut as easily as PREDICT’s were.

There is much public disagreement on the extent to which business closings and shutdowns of other segments of society were necessary. Yet we should all be in agreement that putting ourselves in a position to detect a threat before it reaches our shores and then launch a rapid reaction accordingly would serve to limit or prevent such lockdowns in the future. However, in order to do this effectively, our leaders from Washington, D.C. to local governments must take a broad perspective regarding the nature of threats, publicly acknowledge the value of international cooperation and keep science as depoliticized as possible. Investing in community resilience will be another requirement of this work. Not only is this new CREID network an interdisciplinary effort, but it also involves investing research capacity in rural areas as well as urban areas to identify dangerous viruses before they cross the threshold between animals and humans, identify human behaviors that increase risk of exposure and develop tests to identify those exposed.

COVID-19 has been a tragedy of immense proportions in terms of lives and livelihoods lost. Preventing such tragedies from striking the United States in the future will require bipartisan agreement on embracing scientific investigation, international collaboration and a broader and longer-term perspective on public policy. Actively engaging our cities and towns as sentinels to monitor for the emergence of a new pathogen can not only protect against human and economic devastation, but also create a new sense of resilience and purpose. We must strive to bridge the gulf between our capabilities and our ability to use them, which will mean selecting leaders who will build that bridge.

Author: Nathan Myers, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Director of the Master of Public Administration at Indiana State University. His areas of research include public policy, public health emergency preparedness, and the governance of biotechnology. He is the author of Pandemics and Polarization: Implications of Partisan Budgeting for Responding to Public Health Emergencies.

[email protected]; Twitter: nagremye1980

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