COVID-19 won’t be our last pandemic. Here’s how Biden can prepare us for the next one

It begins with critical actions to bolster our biotech economy

A nurse administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Kedren Community Health Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday. A small biotech company like Moderna could help deliver us from the next pandemic, McMurry-Heath writes.  (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)
A nurse administers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Kedren Community Health Center in Los Angeles on Tuesday. A small biotech company like Moderna could help deliver us from the next pandemic, McMurry-Heath writes. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted February 19, 2021 at 6:00am

President Joe Biden is acting fast to tackle the health and economic crises that greeted him on Inauguration Day. The first 100 days of any new presidency are critical, all the more so when facing a pandemic.

Biden has already taken important steps, like reversing the previous administration's decision to leave the World Health Organization and rejoining the Paris climate accord. These actions return the United States to a position of global leadership in combating crises.

At home, the president hopes to vaccinate 150 million Americans by the end of April, and the administration recently struck deals with vaccine makers to acquire an additional 200 million doses. Through these and other measures, we may finally be on track to beat COVID-19.

But solving our current crisis is not enough. As WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus recently warned, this will not be the last pandemic. If our leaders don’t lay the groundwork for a healthier future, we could face public health emergencies that make COVID-19 look tame by comparison.

Preparedness begins with accelerating infectious disease research and development — including through more grants, tax incentives and public-private partnerships that support those driving our innovation ecosystem. In 2018, small biopharmaceutical companies developed 64 percent of new treatments. But these smaller firms face major challenges raising sufficient investments and navigating complex federal bureaucracies. They also take on significant risk — only 12 percent of experimental medicines that enter clinical trials make it through the rigorous approval process.

Better incentivizing this research could help small companies bring more treatments and cures to Americans, especially in traditionally under-invested areas. After all, a 10-year-old start up, Moderna, delivered one of the first vaccines against the coronavirus. Another small biotech company might help deliver us from the next pandemic.

The Biden administration should also work collaboratively with the private sector to boost our domestic manufacturing capabilities and stockpiles of medical supplies. But while doing so, it is critical to avoid any spirit of “vaccine nationalism” and preserve the benefits of a global supply chain. As COVID-19 has amply demonstrated, infectious disease knows no boundaries — a successful global response can’t have any either.

The federal government also would be wise to adopt a “One Health” policy approach that recognizes the intertwined relationship between human, animal and environmental health. Human health is closely linked to the environment, with the prevalence of infectious disease increasing as climate change and population growth forces people and animals closer together.

It’s no coincidence that many major recent outbreaks, including COVID-19, Zika, Ebola, bird flu and Lyme disease, originated in animals. Biodefense, health and environmental agencies will have to coordinate their approaches ever more closely. And Biden, in turn, needs to make sure they have the direction and resources to do so.

Finally, Biden can boost both our economic and environmental health by expanding support for biotechnologies that make manufacturing and farming greener and more sustainable. Federal agencies are already required to use bio-based products whenever possible — for example, fuels and construction materials made from biological or agricultural materials found right here at home.

But a lack of commitment and enforcement of these “buy green” rules minimize their effectiveness. A report from the Agriculture Department found that the bio-based products industry employed more than 4.2 million people in 2014. Fostering the industry’s growth through federal procurement leadership will generate more sustainable jobs at a time when unemployment remains stuck well above pre-pandemic levels.

Biden has a busy first 100 days ahead of him, rightly focused on getting Americans back to health, work and school. By taking these additional critical actions to bolster our bioeconomy, he can not only lead us out of this pandemic but make sure we are better prepared for the next one.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath is a physician-scientist and the president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, the world’s largest biotech trade association.