Broad COVID Commission Planning Group Will Be Based at UVA’s Miller Center

Philip Zelikow headshot

Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History and J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance. He has chaired the 9/11 Commission and a bipartisan commission on election reform. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The COVID-19 pandemic ranks as a singular mass trauma suffered by humanity during the last hundred years. Millions have already died. Tens of millions have fallen ill. Billions have suffered.

But now, as the availability of protective vaccines rapidly expands, daily death tolls decline and devastated economies start to rebound, there’s a growing risk that hard-won lessons from the last year will be lost amid the natural urge to put the crisis behind us and return to our pre-pandemic lives.

More than two dozen of the nation’s most accomplished virologists, public health experts, clinicians and former officials, joined by four of America’s leading charitable foundations from across the political spectrum, are laying the groundwork to discover and preserve the lessons of the COVID-19 crisis. Together, they have formed a COVID Commission Planning Group, based at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and led by UVA professor Philip Zelikow, former executive director of the 9/11 Commission.

The group will prepare the way for a National COVID Commission that can seize this once-in-a-century opportunity to help America – and the world – begin to heal and safeguard our common future from new existential threats.

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Such a nonpartisan commission, properly conceived, will require unprecedented scale and scope. The planning group has begun work on how to organize this massive effort. It has debriefed nearly 100 experts from a range of disciplines, outlined plans for nine essential task forces, and mapped out dozens of distinct lines of inquiry to ensure that the work of a future COVID Commission will be comprehensive.

The group is also reaching out to many Americans to hear what they hope a future commission can learn and accomplish, working with groups such as Marked By COVID, a victims’ advocacy organization, to include the experiences of pandemic victims and their families.

Sponsors of this commission planning effort include Schmidt Futures, the Skoll Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and Stand Together, with others expected to join in support. Based at the Miller Center, the COVID Commission Planning Group is also working with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Zelikow, who led an earlier, privately organized, Carter-Ford Commission on Federal Election Reform in addition to the 9/11 Commission, will direct the group. Leading experts on the Johns Hopkins team include Amesh Adalja, Anita Cicero, Lisa Cooper, Gigi Gronvall, Tara Kirk Sell, Jennifer Nuzzo, Caitlin Rivers, Joshua Sharfstein, Eric Toner and Crystal Watson. Senior advisers to the COVID Commission Planning Group include veteran investigators and experts drawn from across several disciplines, including Michael Callahan, an expert on infectious disease and vaccine development at Massachusetts General Hospital; Nicholas Christakis of Yale University and author of “Apollo’s Arrow”; Ruth Faden, founder of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics; Julie Gerberding, chief patient officer and executive vice president at Merck and former director of the Centers for Disease Control; former New York City health commissioner and FDA commissioner Margaret “Peggy” Hamburg; Alexander Lazar of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas; Marc Lipsitch of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Anup Malani at the University of Chicago; J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; microbiologist David Relman of Stanford University; Kristin Urquiza, co-founder of Marked By COVID; and Rajeev Venkayya, a former biodefense official and head of global vaccines at Takeda.

The COVID Commission Planning Group is currently organized around planning nine task forces, laying the foundation for a future commission to investigate:

  • Origins and prevention, including debates about the origins of this pandemic, analysis of the virus and its variants, and the rising danger of future pandemics.
  • Assessment of the danger, including the international network for detection and warning, the state of global biological intelligence and data collection, and how experts assessed the danger as the virus threatened the United States.
  • National readiness and the initial response, including the state of pandemic preparedness; efforts to gather medical intelligence; and the initial policy direction to head off the crisis, including travel bans and screening, emergency responses and quarantines, and stockpiles and global supply chains for vital equipment.
  • Communities at risk, including how to define the communities at greatest risk and address large gaps in local public health capacities; assessing abilities to detect the spread of the virus and step up to issues of worker safety and business responsibility; and how to engage with communities at risk.
  • State and local readiness, containment and mitigation, including choices about when and how to use lockdowns and mandates and the tools available – or not – to save businesses and jobs, communicate with the public, cope with data problems, conduct testing and contact tracing and judge when to close and reopen schools.
  • Caring for the sick, including those suffering from “Long COVID,” examining the strength and safety of America's institutions, and challenges faced by those on the front lines of primary care, hospitalization and intensive care.
  • Diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines collectively, the promise and challenge of the bio revolution – including the relationship of science, industry and government in handling the profound opportunities and risks of the bio revolution for dealing with new threats, nationally and globally. This task force would also look at the regulatory environment for innovation, and specific issues in R&D and manufacturing, including challenging global production and supply chains for tests, therapeutics and vaccines, as well as the challenges in national and global distribution of vaccines.
  • Telling the stories of COVID victims and their families and capturing the experiences of those on the front lines of this crisis, including nurses, doctors and state and local public health officials.
  • Solving data issues, some quite technical, that have bedeviled the collection and meaningful analysis of information during and about the crisis.

The COVID Commission Planning Group’s effort is rooted in the belief that the scope of a future commission’s work must be national and international, not just federal. To that end, it is working with groups such as the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials and the COVID Collaborative, a national assembly of experts, leaders and institutions in health, education and the economy that is engaging with federal, state and local leaders on the current COVID-19 response. A future commission should also address private sector and nonprofit challenges, not just those faced by the government.

Congress and the Biden administration might soon consider whether or how to organize a National COVID Commission. Such a commission might be initiated by the White House or chartered by Congress. Alternatively, an independent, privately organized national commission could answer a broad set of questions while avoiding some of the challenges of the current political environment. However, if Congress and the White House prefer to establish a government commission, the planning group will offer its work to that effort.

A nonpartisan National COVID Commission could unite Americans to call upon their knowledge and practical skills across and beyond political parties. Although it cannot provide the last word, a commission can build a healthier foundation for common understanding and future work, including on issues of equity and the way the seismic shock of this pandemic has exposed so many fault lines in our society. The challenge is not only a future pandemic. There will be other disasters, natural or man-made, that might test the readiness and resilience of our communities.

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Howard Witt

Miller Center of Public Affairs