All epidemics trigger the same dispiriting cycle. First, panic: As new pathogens emerge, governments throw money, resources, and attention at the threat. Then, neglect: Once the danger dwindles, budgets shrink and memories fade. The world ends up where it started, forced to confront each new disease unprepared and therefore primed for panic. This Sisphyean sequence occurred in the United States after HIV, anthrax, SARS, Ebola, and Zika. It occurred in Republican administrations and Democratic ones. It occurs despite decades of warnings from public-health experts. It has been as inevitable as the passing of day into night.
Even so, it’s not meant to happen this quickly. When I first wrote about the panic-neglect cycle five years ago, I assumed that it would operate on a timescale of years, and that neglect would set in only after the crisis was over. The coronavirus pandemic has destroyed both assumptions. Before every surge has ended, pundits have incorrectly predicted that the current wave would be the last, or claimed that lifesaving measures were never actually necessary. Time and again, neglect has set in within mere months, often before the panic part has been over. The U.S. funds pandemic preparedness “like Minnesota snow,” Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told me in 2018. “There’s a lot in January, but in July it’s all melted.”
Or, as it happens, in March.
This week, Congress nixed $15 billion in coronavirus funding from a $1.5 trillion spending bill, which President Joe Biden then signed on Tuesday. The decision is catastrophic, and as the White House has noted, its consequences will unfurl quickly. Next week, the government will have to cut shipments of monoclonal-antibody treatments by a third. In April, it will no longer be able to reimburse health-care providers for testing, vaccinating, or treating millions of uninsured Americans, who are disproportionately likely to be unvaccinated and infected. Come June, it won’t be able to support domestic testing manufacturers. It can’t buy extra doses of antiviral pills or infection-preventing treatments that immunocompromised people are banking on but were already struggling to get. It will need to scale back its efforts to improve vaccination rates in poor countries, which increases the odds that dangerous new variants will arise. If such variants arise, they’ll likely catch the U.S. off guard, because surveillance networks will have to be scaled back too. Should people need further booster shots, the government won’t have enough for everyone. [Continue reading…]