Reviews | The view from the White House
So now we’ve been through an even bigger pandemic. Are there things you have learned about how the US government should be structurally set up to function during a pandemic that we need to consider going forward? We may not be optimally configured for this, so are there any ways the structure should change? Are there pandemic-specific modes that you should be able to impose with, say, an act of Congress? What have we learned institutionally that we need to take away from this?
Well, look, I think what we’ve learned institutionally, first and foremost, is that you always have to be in pandemic response mode or pandemic preparedness mode. Covid is a good example. In other words, you can think of Covid as a pandemic we’re in the middle of, or you can think of it as a series of discrete pandemics – the wild wave, Beta, Delta, now Omicron. And so maybe we see this as multiple pandemics stacked against each other.
And the thing is, while you’re in the middle of this one, you really need to prepare for the next one, and not wait for the existing one to be quoted, unquoted “done”. It’s something we talk about when we think about pandemic prevention. Pandemic prevention and response is not just about the next one, but rather about what happens as we progress through it.
And so we set up a Pandemic Response Office in the White House, headed by Jeff Zients. We recently brought in, for example, Tom Inglesby from Johns Hopkins, one of the world’s top epidemiologists, to lead our testing unit. Tom is not just focusing on, obviously first and foremost, meeting our testing needs here in the United States, but also thinking about this question of what are the long-term testing needs, how do we innovate on testing, how to reduce the cost of testing, how to set up test manufacturing. This is a key skill that we need to develop.
Same as vaccines. You and I talked about the effort led by Eric Lander. So we have a lot of people in the White House who are focused on that, both in the context of fighting this pandemic, fighting potential future waves of this pandemic, and fighting future pandemics.
Something that I’ve seen happening in government with an acceleration, in fact, just in the last two weeks is the recognition that in times of a pandemic, and maybe not even, government needs to to be the first supplier of important public health goods. So vaccines have of course been the government’s biggest distribution effort here. But as of this week, I can now go to a website and order four rapid home tests from the government. I wish I could order more, but that’s something quite different.
Now I hear that you are going to try to distribute 400 million good masks. This movement towards a direction where you can get the things you need for public health directly from the government, what does that represent? What lessons does this represent and what kind of construction should be done there?