The year 2022 is the year of decision. Confronted at the year’s opening with the Omicron surge, we have no choice but to rethink U.S. approaches, at home and abroad, in both managing the ongoing pandemic and in creating better preparedness for the future. Although we have achieved significant progress with vaccines, boosters, and new therapeutics, we must come to terms with several hard realities, setbacks, and uncertainties. We must better unify and balance our domestic and international strategies, dissolving the tension between the two and making clear to Americans that each is essential to the truly global response necessary to resolve this crisis. We need to preserve and strengthen the fragile bipartisanship that has been and remains foundational to success in advancing America’s health security.
Science and technology do provide us with vital tools to manage the SARS-CoV-2 virus, even as Omicron dramatically raises the urgency and stakes in developing and deploying better, more durable, and possibly pan-variant vaccines and in bringing new therapies rapidly to scale. Operation Warp Speed taught us what is possible in terms of speed, scale, and production of vaccines when there is political will, resources, oversight, and concentrated decision authority, including use of the Defense Production Act, that blends civilian and military capacities. Thinking on our future technology needs and preparedness infrastructure is advancing; the draft American Pandemic Preparedness Plan, released in September 2021, calls for $65 billion over 7 to 10 years to develop vaccines, therapies, and diagnostics and strengthen monitoring and surveillance, domestically and globally. Whether we are successful in taking full advantage of our scientific capabilities is a matter of choice. It is a question of political will, execution, and sustained high-level diplomacy, matched by long-term funding, global coordination, and dynamic partnerships. It is also a matter of resilience and strategic foresight in adapting rapidly and effectively to variants and other changes that influence the course of the pandemic.
The pandemic calls for a longer time horizon than anticipated. That means acknowledging the uncertainty about the time it will take to gain control over SARS-CoV-2 and focusing beyond just the current phase to investing adequately against future threats. The Omicron shock may open the door to such a change in thinking. However, it will not be easy. Omicron’s apparent reduced severity may induce complacency that could in turn fuel further mass infection. Across the world today, there is widespread exhaustion. Health systems are frayed and at risk of breaking. Essential workforces are demoralized and depleted. Too many people are simply unwilling to accept vaccines, reinforced in their convictions by deep distrust, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.