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We Have the Know-How, Ability, and Resources to End Pandemic Threats. So What's Stopping Us?

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Over the last two decades, the world received four warnings about the destructive power of new viruses: SARS, MERS, Ebola, and Zika. In the absence of effective treatments or vaccines, each outbreak terrorized Americans and other populations around the globe. Among the agonizing questions we've faced: If I contract this virus, will I be permanently damaged or disabled? Will I die? Will my parents or children survive? Will my unborn child be brain-damaged?

Yet, in a state of strange amnesia--out of sight, out of mind--when these viruses faded so did the funding and enthusiasm for research. And this happened despite countless informed warnings that another deadly virus or mutation was likely to emerge.

Rather than mobilizing a massive international effort to unravel the mysteries of viruses, the United States has ignored the counsel of epidemiologists and other medical experts. Consider Donald Trump's February 2020 proposed $1.3 billion cut in the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), including $100 million cut in research grants for the study of emerging infectious diseases. Trump continued his cutting spree by slashing the budget of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)--the agency that Dr. Anthony Fauci heads--by $768.9 million.

If timing is everything, especially in life and death situations, Trump's cuts represent the worst timing possible--just when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic was beginning to sweep the planet.

These instances of poor judgment should not be surprising. In an earlier act of terrible timing (May 2018) that put our nation at risk, Trump disbanded the pandemic response team (the Office of Global Health Security and Biodefense Preparedness) that was established under the Obama Administration to prepare our nation for a possible pandemic threat. This, despite the prophetic warning by Dr. Luciana Borio, Trump's chief advisor on biodefense preparedness, that the U.S. was unprepared for the number one health security threat--"a flu-like pandemic." Just like the lookout on the Titanic, Trump declared: "All clear ahead."

We are now paying a steep price for his penny-wise and tons foolish decisions. The coronavirus has devastated the formerly robust U.S. economy, forcing Trump to open the money spigot to the tune of $2 trillion, with more trillions likely to follow. And this spending spree is not for the discovery of effective treatments or a vaccine to defeat COVID-19. It is strictly for conventional defensive measures to provide essential equipment, reduce suffering, and compensate for the massive shut-down of businesses and rapidly escalating unemployment--an unemployment level expected to equal the 2008 recession and possibly the1929 Great Depression. These expenditures are necessary and appropriate, but they don't address the longer view and the inevitable reality that other viruses will almost certainly appear.

"It didn't have to be," declares New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, in one of his powerful and well-informed daily briefings. And he is right. Given past warnings, we should have been prepared with stockpiles of ventilators and PPEs--masks, gowns, face shields, and gloves--and plans for mobilizing the manufacture of more of these life-saving materials, as well as plans for facility expansion and construction. While advance planning would have slowed the spread of the coronavirus and lowered the high death rate we are currently witnessing, there is another and even more important "didn't have to be."

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Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist, journalist, and professor emeritus at CUNY, Brooklyn College. His screenplay "The Crucifixion of Truth," a drama set in 16th century Italy and Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, has been optioned for a (more...)

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