The COVID-19 pandemic began with a serious red flag — the nation's fumbling rollout of tests to detect the virus. Thankfully, 2020 ended with a remarkable demonstration of scientific prowess — the swift debut of two highly effective vaccines.
These developments are but two examples of what went wrong and right during this historic public health crisis. There are clear lessons to be drawn from each, but a broader and deeper analysis is vital to prepare future generations for pathogens yet to come.
While COVID is not yet conquered, the time is at hand to launch a formal, official review of the pandemic's management. Leading scientists, such as Minnesota infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, are calling for a national COVID commission to undertake this critical mission. That's a logical step deserving broad support from the public and political leaders.
In this age of polarization and disinformation, constructing this commission must be done with special care to ensure that its findings are acted upon, not dismissed. For example, stances on masking and shutdowns were too often rooted in politics. A thorough, expert assessment of these measures should be one essential part of the commission's assignment. Were these measures as helpful as hoped? Could they have been better timed? Those who supported and decried these safeguards should welcome this scrutiny and be able to trust the findings.
A national COVID commission's ability to operate independently would be a confidence booster. For that reason, it would be best if members of the commission were not appointed by congressional leaders nor the commission reliant on government funds. Doing so would also avoid an ugly, potentially unsuccessful fight like that over authorizing a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 violence at the U.S. Capitol.
A national COVID commission could instead operate with financial support from private foundations and organizational aid from academia. Fortunately, this route is being pursued by a COVID commission planning group directed by Philip Zelikow. He served as the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, which delved into the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and evaluated preparedness and future safeguards.
Now a University of Virginia history professor, Zelikow's involvement in planning a COVID commission bolsters confidence that the panel would attract the nation's best minds. And, that its work would be heeded.
The work done just in the commission's planning is impressive. About two dozen experts are already part of a planning group. So far, the group has debriefed more than 200people and mapped out "dozens of distinct lines of inquiry."
It's not clear how much funding the commission would require, but financial resources likely wouldn't be lacking if federal dollars are foregone. Contacted by an editorial writer, Zelikow said he thinks the foundations already working with the planning group would continue their support. "Especially if political leaders welcome it,'' he added.
Listed as the planning group's sponsors: Schmidt Futures, theSkoll Foundation,TheRockefeller Foundation andStand Together. The planning group is based at the University of Virginia and working with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. Osterholm is listed among the group's "senior advisers."
Also unclear: how many people would be named to the national commission, and how they would be chosen. That's to be decided, Zelikow said. "There are several ideas out there, including a suggestion that the former presidents, Obama and Bush, could select commissioners."
Minnesota's congressional delegation ought to voice strong, public support for the national COVID commission and the smart planning already done to ensure its findings have impact. Said Osterholm: "This report has got to matter.It's not just about the politics, it's about the lives and the safety of our grandkids in the future."