Historically, the United States’ preparedness for a pandemic is like Charles Dudley Warner’s aphorism on the weather: everybody talks about it but no one ever does anything. Before COVID-19 struck, it was clear that the threat of a pandemic was real and that the world was not ready. As one of many examples, a September 2019 report from the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB)—an expert group convened by the World Bank and WHO—concluded that “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy.” Perhaps the tragedy of the current crisis will provide sufficient motivation to better prepare for next time.
As a step in this direction, earlier this month the Biden administration released a twenty-seven page American Pandemic Preparedness Plan—with a $65 billion price tag—to provide the United States with “broad and deep protection against biological threats, ranging from the ongoing and increasing risk of pandemic disease, to the possibility of laboratory accidents and the deliberate use of bioweapons.” These include, of course, several innovation policy commitments to encourage the development of pandemic-related tools for COVID-19 and beyond. What are those commitments? How do they work—or would have worked—for COVID-19? And what does this say about innovation policy more generally?