WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Friday unveiled a sweeping new biosecurity plan, outlining a $65 billion proposal to remake the nation’s pandemic preparedness infrastructure in the wake of Covid-19.
The new spending would represent one of the largest investments in public health in American history: During a press briefing, Eric Lander, the White House science adviser, likened the proposal to the Apollo program of the late 1960s.
The immense funding boost would target programs aimed at developing and manufacturing vaccines, treatments, and tests more quickly. It would also provide new money for laboratory capacity, viral detection mechanisms, and early warning systems.
“For the first time in the nation’s history, due to these types of advancements in scientific technology, we have the opportunity not just to refill stockpiles but to transform our capabilities,” Lander said. “But we really need to start preparing now.”
Indeed, the White House funding request comes with a near-term deadline. While the spending would be spread over the coming seven to 10 years, it also includes an ask for at least $15 billion to be included within a forthcoming, $3.5 trillion budget plan still pending on Capitol Hill. The White House is still in discussions with Congress, Lander said, but he was “very optimistic” that lawmakers would agree to the request.
The new spending would target a wide array of new pandemic preparedness capabilities. It would include over $24 billion for vaccine infrastructure, with a goal of beginning to manufacture vaccine doses meant to protect against any virus family within 100 days of a pandemic threat first emerging.
The plan would include nearly $12 billion to develop — and have on hand — a range of treatments available for any known virus family even before a particular pathogen emerged as a pandemic threat.
It would also provide $5 billion for diagnostics that the government would aim to make available within weeks of identifying a new biosecurity threat.
“What this plan is about is ensuring the United States has the capabilities it needs to operationalize [its response] when we see the first signs of an emerging outbreak that could have epidemic or pandemic potential,” Beth Cameron, the top biosecurity expert on the National Security Council, said during the briefing.
It’s not yet clear how Congress will respond to the Biden administration’s sweeping proposal, which expands on a previous request to spend $30 billion over four years on improving future pandemic prevention and preparedness. In a subsequent version of Democrats’ budget bill, however, lawmakers included just $5 billion, drawing criticism from many public health experts who said the government was repeating the same mistakes that led to the country’s chaotic response to Covid-19.
The $65 billion proposal doesn’t stop at treatments, tests, and vaccines.
It would include $3.1 billion aimed at establishing an early-warning system for new disease outbreaks, including systems to sequence pathogens found in wastewater and a “reliable clinical surveillance system.” Biden also calls for spending to help reduce health inequity, fund lab capacity, and improve public health communication. He also wants to put money toward developing better protective equipment for health workers and creating better systems for “pathogen protection,” like better ventilation systems and surface cleaners.
The plan also includes measures to ensure that research and development “involving potentially dangerous biological agents is conducted safely and securely, by fostering a global research environment that adopts and enforces high standards.” The lab-safety provisions are a potential nod to the unproven theory that Covid-19 originated from “gain-of-function” research performed in a Chinese laboratory, a long-running controversy in U.S. and global politics.