The public deserves an investigation
Over the past year, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Denmark have begun or completed public investigations into their countries’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. These governments believed it was important to report on successes and failures of pandemic decisions because it was the public that was on the receiving end of policies such as closed schools, vaccine mandates, and shuttered businesses.
The United States is notably absent from this list, despite a long history of setting up bipartisan commissions after national crises in order to avoid repeating mistakes. Since 1989, when the current iteration of bipartisan commissions essentially came into being, Congress has funded 170 commissions to investigate problems ranging from the substantial (9/11 in 2002, the financial crisis in 2009) to the less weighty (the motor fuel tax enforcement commission of 2005, state of the Olympics in 2020).
How can it be, then, that US politicians lack the will to create this type of bipartisan commission to investigate a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of people (we still do not know the precise number, because the CDC does not track this data accurately)? Let’s also not forget the collateral damage caused by pandemic policies that closed schools for millions of children, deferred health care visits for tens of millions, and thrust the weaknesses of our public health systems, including our severely strapped health care capacity, into the limelight.
A few universities and think tanks have issued post-mortem reports. But, without the teeth or balance of a bipartisan commission — which would be able to appoint independent scientists and physicians to sift through data, use subpoena power, and act independently of Congress — most of these reports will languish unread and unused, instead of shaping policy. As for congressional committees, they are likely to be either whitewashes, such as the February House Energy and Commerce hearings where agency heads inaccurately answered questions about pandemic policies with little pushback, or marred by hyper-partisanship.
The House, now led by the Republicans, set up another subcommittee in January to investigate the federal government’s pandemic policies, and it includes four Democrats. However, the inclusion of Marjorie Taylor Greene, perhaps the single most polarising member of Congress, on the committee is not a hopeful sign for the neutrality of the investigation. Nevertheless, the ranking Democrat, Raul Ruiz, says he is hopeful the committee “can actually be productive on a bipartisan basis”.
A better path, though, would be for Congress not to leave this to chance by passing legislation to create a bipartisan Covid commission, despite the fact that, as the New York Times reported in December, “the White House is privately resisting it… [and] Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader […] has not brought the legislation up for a floor vote”. Jeffrey Zients, the former coronavirus response coordinator and now Joe Biden’s chief of staff, also remarked tepidly when asked about a Covid-19 commission: “Over time we […] look forward to engaging with Congress and reviewing lessons learned.”
So, when? To aid this process, we (the authors plus six other scientists: Jay Bhattacharya, Ram Duriseti, Tracy Beth Høeg, Martin Kulldorff, Marty Makary, and Steve Templeton) released a report earlier this month listing questions to inform just such a Covid-19 commission. The report examines America’s responses to the pandemic over ten chapters and includes an executive summary. Each chapter includes a list of questions that could guide a comprehensive inquiry into US Covid policies.
The questions provide a framework for investigations into failures to protect older high-risk Americans, school closures, collateral lockdown harms, lack of robust public health data collected and/or made available, misleading risk communication, downplaying infection-acquired immunity, masks, testing, vaccine efficacy and safety, therapeutics, and epidemiological modelling.
There is a plethora of available information — multiple reports, including ours, thousands of published papers, and vast amounts of data in public health agency databases — waiting to be mined. The American people, and the rest of the world, are waiting for Congress to do the right thing by voting on, funding, and appointing a bipartisan commission to investigate the US response to the most consequential national or international event since World War II. If not now, when?