WASHINGTON—U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on Tuesday joined National Security Action’s Ned Price and Amy Pope, who served as President Obama’s Deputy Homeland Security Adviser, for an on the record press call. Murphy discussed the geopolitical ramifications of COVID-19, and what America must do to prepare for the next global health crisis.
“I think it's really important that we have a conversation right now about how we allowed for our international defenses against a pandemic to become so weak as to be in a position we are today. But, it is also important that we recognize that the next virus, the next pathogen, will not wait for us to get our act together,” Murphy said, noting that he is currently in conversations with Republicans and Democrats on the U.S. Foreign Relations and Appropriations Committees to make sure we are putting down payments this year on critical global health investments.
On the holes in our national security infrastructure, Murphy said: “We are facing squarely the fact that threats to this nation don't only come in military garb. The most dangerous threats posed to the United States today are by and large not conventional military threats. And we are seeing that pandemic disease is at the top of that list. And it exposes how mis-resourced our national security infrastructure is to meet these new challenges.”
Noting that the U.S. Department of Defense gets upwards of $700 billion per year, in comparison to a global public health budget of barely $12 billion per year, Murphy continued: “We need to protect the United States against terrorist attack or an invasion of a foreign army. But, I'm not sure anyone today would suggest that those conventional military threats should be met with 100 times the investment that we are putting into fighting against pandemics reaching our shores. And so we need to have a new look that includes both Republicans and Democrats with the way that we spend money and the way that we stand up programs to fight against pandemic disease.”
On the call, Murphy laid out specific policy recommendations: (1) re-establish a new global health post at the National Security Council which Trump previously gutted; (2) rejoin and rebuild USAID’s PREDICT program immediately; (3) join the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness to work with other countries in developing a COVID-19 vaccine; (4) set up a new Global Health Security Challenge Fund for FY2021, which Murphy is already talking to Appropriations Committee colleagues about; (5) re-examine U.S. sanctions policy, especially with respect to Iran and Venezuela, to see where we can help these countries meet the humanitarian crisis caused by COVID-19; and (6) set up a new directorate to be staffed with experienced public health professionals.
Murphy recently announced bipartisan legislation with U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to global health security, and reorient the United States’ global pandemic response amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Murphy also authored an op-ed in Foreign Policy about why the United States was virtually impotent from stopping COVID-19 from reaching our shores and what can be done better if and when the next pandemic strikes.
A full transcript of Murphy’s opening remarks can be found below:
“Thank you very much, Ned. I’m glad to be joined here today by both you and Amy. Thank you to National Security Action for convening this call.
“I think it's really important that we have a conversation right now about how we allowed for our international defenses against a pandemic to become so weak as to be in a position we are today. But, it is also important that we recognize that the next virus, the next pathogen, will not wait for us to get our act together.
“We have to both prioritize the immediate public health response in the United States, while at the same time, starting to rebuild our international commitments to stopping the next pandemic from reaching U.S. shores. Viruses don't work on our schedule and we could be dealing with the next epidemic as soon as we have turned the corner on this one.
“And so I'm glad to be in conversations as we speak with both Republicans and Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee and on the Appropriations Committee, to make sure that we're making at the very least some down payments this year on the investments we need to make in global public health. And I'm also glad to be in dialogue with leaders and experts, like Amy [Pope] and Ned [Price], about how we can learn from past successes and build a new global public health infrastructure.
“I just want to lay out, I think, a few recommendations that I and some of my colleagues are making, so that we can start to enact in the short term. Listen—we are facing squarely the fact that threats to this nation don't only come in military garb. The most dangerous threats posed to the United States today are by and large not conventional military threats. And we are seeing that pandemic disease is at the top of that list. And it exposes how mis-resourced our national security infrastructure is to meet these new challenges.
“Today, we are spending north of $700 billion on the Department of Defense, largely on troop deployments and military hardware. Compare that to a global public health budget that barely eclipses $12 billion a year.
“Now, conventional military threats are still real. We need to protect the United States against a terrorist attack or an invasion of a foreign army. But, I'm not sure anyone today would suggest that those conventional military threats should be met with 100 times the investment that we are putting into fighting against pandemics reaching our shores. And so we need to have a new look that includes both Republicans and Democrats with the way that we spend money and the way that we stand up programs to fight against pandemic disease.
“So, a couple suggestions that many of us are making. First, as Ned [Price] mentioned, Senator Romney and I introduced within the last week, legislation that would establish a new global health security council. And the purpose of this is to essentially rebuild the capacity that existed during the Obama administration in which the National Security Council convenes a cross-agency, ongoing dialogue about pandemic threats.
“President Trump stood down this capacity, and in doing so, we lost the ability to have agencies talking to each other about the threats they see coming, so as to be able to build up defenses ahead of time. Had that capacity still existed at the [National] Security Council, we might not be in the position that we are today. Secretary Azar may have been more empowered as he was raising alarm bells early during this crisis had he had a high-level official at the National Security Council dedicated to tracking pandemic disease.
“A few other recommendations: we need to rebuild the PREDICT program immediately. This was a USAID program that collected thousands and thousands of samples of viruses and pathogens all over the world. This allowed us to do early research, early treatment and vaccine development.
“President Trump stood down this program and it has left us badly exposed. PREDICT was very involved in China and we shudder to think what might have happened if PREDICT had been up and operating in China as coronavirus was beginning to spread there.
“Third, we need to join the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness [and Innovations]. This is an effort that joins countries together in developing vaccines. We don't need to develop the vaccines by ourselves; we should be doing that jointly with other countries. Frankly, had we been working with other countries early on to develop a test, a uniform test for coronavirus, we would be testing far more people here. We should be doing that kind of collaboration when it comes to vaccine development.
“I'm talking to my colleagues on the Appropriations Committee about putting money into a new Global Health Security Challenge Fund for the 2000-2021 [fiscal] year. This would be built upon the model that President Obama used in the Millennium Challenge Fund—that was an economic development partnership between the United States and developing nations, in which the United States put in money to economic development alongside the host country’s dollars, in exchange for a series of economic reform measures that that nation would undertake.
“We can copy that model to help vulnerable countries build up their public health systems. Put some U.S. money next to developing nations’ money in exchange for reforms. Remember, our health security in United States is no stronger than the weakest country's public health system. This disease may have started in China, but plenty of other diseases will start in countries that have less developed public health systems than China.
“Next, in further recognition that any weak link in the global public health security infrastructure hurts the United States, we need to be looking at our sanctions policy right now. Many of us have called on the administration to make sure that our sanctions policy, especially with respect to Iran and Venezuela, allows for the import of humanitarian assistance and medicine. Right now, our sanctions do not allow for that. And so if this epidemic continues to grow and spread in Iran, it will result in the death of innocent people, as a result partially of U.S. policy that does not accrue to the national security benefit of our country. But if the virus continues to grow in places like Iran, it compromises our ability to protect ourselves.
“And then lastly, we need to make personnel priority. I think the horse has probably fully left the barn with respect to this administration's ability to recruit experienced, high-level people to work on problems like this. But, we all have to recognize that having the right people in the right jobs matter.
“Senator Romney and I are proposing to set up a new directorate that would be, could be staffed with experienced public health professionals. But right now, we have an ability in the Senate to demand that the president appoint only qualified individuals to the most important international public health positions.
“And I would point out that one of those appointments will be before the Senate very soon, and that is the president's nominee to be the new director of USAID. Mark Green was an asset; he was supported by Republicans and Democrats. But the president's current nominee, John Barsa, is not experienced, does not have the necessary resume in order to be able to stand up an international anti-pandemic campaign like the one that is necessary at this moment.
“And so we need Republicans and Democrats to demand that this administration only place people into critical international positions working on public health that have the experience and the capacity to do the job.
“So, I'm glad that right now, I think the dialogue has been very good between Republicans and Democrats. I've been in touch with many of my colleagues on both the Foreign Relations Committee and the Appropriations Committee, and I'm hopeful that some of these recommendations that I'm outlining will be taken up by both of those committees as soon as Congress reconvenes.
“So again, glad to join this call, eager to take some questions.”