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Another Voice

U.S. needs to prepare for the next coronavirus pandemic

By Brian Higgins

Covid-19 continues to rage through our country with no end in sight. Nearly 75,000 Americans have died, a number that may double by August.

With much of the country’s $22.5 trillion economy in mandated lockdown, social distancing remains the only means of protecting people from this highly contagious disease.

More than 30 million jobs were lost in the last 12 weeks and the unemployment rate could hit 30 percent this summer, exceeding the jobless rate at the peak of the Great Depression. Our fragile health care system can only provide “supportive care” to the suffering, with no treatment for those whose lungs are infected and no vaccine to prevent disease spread.

Consider this alarming statistic: The United States will spend more than $700 billion this year on defense, but cannot marshal the resources for face masks and gloves for nurses and doctors, or testing kits and ventilators for patients.

Public health officials warned that this pandemic was coming, but our nation and the world failed to pay heed.

Seventeen years ago this month, the World Health Organization officially declared that a strain of coronavirus was the cause of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is also a type of coronavirus. The novel coronavirus causing Covid-19 is the third coronavirus-related outbreak in a span of two decades.

Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are passed from animals to humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that Covid-19, like MERS and SARS, has its origins in bats, which represent 20 percent of all non-human mammals on earth, playing an essential role in many ecosystems. Health experts warn of similar outbreaks in the foreseeable future. Despite the valiant efforts of scientists to accelerate research for a treatment, including “repurposing” drugs, the simple fact is that a vaccine is years away.

The federal government is long overdue for investing in developing a vaccine to protect against coronaviruses. A vaccine is the most powerful weapon against the virus, but research takes time and sustained investment. That’s why I have called on Congress to invest at least $5 billion over the next five years at the National Institutes of Health, the largest medical research funder in the world, to develop a vaccine against Covid-19.

New funding for Covid-19 disaster relief should include this investment as a down payment for a healthier and safer America and world. Had we made this investment two decades ago, we could have saved trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, and spared the good people of this nation from having to endure so much death and destruction.

Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat, represents New York's 26th congressional district.

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