The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a Feb. 1 hearing on understanding the origins of pandemics and opportunities to improve future investigations to identify the causes of disease spread.
The hearing centered on the theme of a recently released Government Accountability Organization (GAO) report, “Pandemic Origins: Technologies and Challenges for Biological Investigations.” The report detailed challenges to pandemic origin investigations, including sample access and standardization of genetic sequencing and data sharing, as well as current shortages in the public health workforce and opportunities to develop a national strategy to better coordinate domestic and international investigations.
During the hearing, subcommittee members discussed the report and research with certain types of pathogens with witnesses from the GAO as well as academia and the biodefense communities.
Full Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) stated that it is Congress’ responsibility “to get to the bottom of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” while full Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) noted the need to quickly identify and learn about emerging infectious disease. “This research allows us to develop countermeasures to help prevent death and disease,” Pallone stated.
Michael Imperiale, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan Medical School, testified on the importance of global collaborations broadly and specifically in relation to disease outbreak investigations. In response to members’ questions, Imepriale and other witnesses defined “gain of function” research, its utility in therapeutic and vaccine development, the existing federal biosafety oversight, and the recently released report from the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity with a proposed framework for the oversight of biosecurity [refer to related story]. “We in the U.S. should take a leadership role among our international partners and collaborators to help them continue to improve the safety and security of their facilities as well,” Imperiale added.
This hearing is one in a series of expected hearings in the committee on the topic of global pandemics and COVID-19. On Feb. 8, the Health and Oversight and Investigations subcommittees will hear testimony from federal officials on the federal response to COVID-19.