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Two decades after 9/11 inquiry, a similar plan for COVID stalls in Congress

A memorial in Washington last year for victims of COVID-19. More than a million Americans have died from the coronavirus.

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

The nation was reeling from an unfathomable number of deaths. Politicians were pointing fingers, asking why the United States had been so ill-prepared for a lethal threat. Congress, defying the White House, ordered an independent investigation.

That was 20 years ago, and what came of it was a national reckoning. A bipartisan panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks held televised hearings, developed 41 recommendations for how to improve national security and produced a bestselling book — a gripping historical narrative about what had gone wrong.

Now the United States is climbing out of a different crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed vastly more people than the Sept. 11 attacks and set off a global economic crisis. But some experts in biodefense and public health fear that the opportunity for a national reckoning with COVID-19 is slipping away — and with it, a chance to build on lessons learned during the pandemic.

Bipartisan legislation to create a Sept. 11-style independent panel to investigate the pandemic response by both the Trump and Biden administrations appears stalled on Capitol Hill, despite a 20-2 vote in favor of the measure by the Senate health committee. Backers say their last hope for passage is to tack it onto an upcoming spending bill, the final major must-pass piece of legislation of the current Congress.

The commission would be created as part of a sprawling bill called the PREVENT Pandemics Act. The measure would also make the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a Senate-confirmed position and take other steps to improve pandemic preparedness, including increasing coordination among public health agencies and addressing supply chain deficiencies.

There has been no vocal opposition to the bill, but it has been in limbo since it passed the health committee in March — a victim of inertia and a lack of White House support.

There is no companion measure in the House, where Republicans are planning their own pandemic-related investigations once they take control of the chamber next month. More significantly, President Joe Biden has not taken a public position on the bill, and the White House is privately resisting it, according to an official familiar with the measure, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss its status.

Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, who has focused his efforts on judicial nominations and the president’s agenda, has not brought the legislation up for a floor vote. The White House declined to comment.

One of the bill’s two chief sponsors, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chair of the health committee, made an impassioned appeal for it on the Senate floor last week. In an interview, she said the White House was “well aware” of her efforts.

“This is a bill that we needed both Republicans and Democrats on,” she said. “They understand that.”

More than 1 million Americans have died of COVID-19 — over 300 times the number that perished on Sept. 11. With cases and hospitalizations once again rising, more than 450 Americans are still dying of COVID each day. Over 200,000 children have lost a parent or a caregiver, and the CDC estimates that millions of adults have long COVID, a constellation of lasting symptoms.

The idea for a commission has been percolating for nearly two years, backed by members of Congress, advocacy groups representing the bereaved and the former executive director of the 9/11 Commission. Experts say that beyond charting a blueprint for confronting future pandemics, an independent panel — with the power to issue subpoenas and convene public hearings — would serve as a form of catharsis for the country and a way to comfort those who lost loved ones.

It might also answer a pressing question: Why does the United States have a higher death rate from COVID-19 than other wealthy nations?

“Although much of the country is acting like the pandemic is over, the hurt and the anger and the pain and the way lives have changed is still with people every day,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, a top official with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global nonprofit. “If a commission can really start to grapple with questions about how does our country heal, and what do leaders do to get on a path to that healing, that would be an important contribution.”

Any investigation of the pandemic would necessarily be vast and complex, encompassing topics such as better detection of new pathogens, improvements to the public health system’s antiquated data collection apparatus, supply chain vulnerabilities, the harmful effect of lockdowns on many schoolchildren, the spread of misinformation and a lack of public trust in agencies like the CDC.

Members of Congress have tried to examine the crisis. On Friday, the House subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis released its final report, which was sharply critical of the Trump administration. On Thursday, Democrats on the Senate homeland security committee issued a study of the pandemic’s early months. In October, Republicans on the Senate health committee released an examination of the pandemic’s origins that suggested it was the result of a lab leak — a view most scientists disagree with.

But those inquiries are partisan. The bill to create the independent commission would establish a 12-member expert panel of “highly qualified citizens” appointed by congressional leaders from both parties. Like the Sept. 11 panel, it would have subpoena power and hold public hearings. It would be charged with examining the origins of the pandemic as well as the response by the Trump and Biden administrations.

“There’s no substitute for showing the vision that we showed in the early 2000s at creating an architecture that fixes things that we got wrong then, that addresses things that we didn’t think of then that we’ve learned, having gone through it,” said Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the health committee’s top Republican, who is sponsoring the measure with Murray.

Some experts see a broad-based examination of the pandemic as too daunting. And even if a commission were established, it might have difficulty overcoming the intense partisanship surrounding COVID-19. The nation was so deeply divided after Sept. 11 that “partisan pressures almost tore apart our commission,” said Philip D. Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian and former government official who was the executive director of the Sept. 11 panel. The problem is even worse today, he said.

Advocacy groups like Marked by Covid and COVID Survivors for Change have been lobbying Congress to create an investigative commission, just as the Sept. 11 families did in the aftermath of the attacks. To some people grieving losses from COVID-19, the notion that Congress may fail to act feels like a slap in the face.

“I am not looking for a commission to blame people,” said Pamela Addison, who has been raising two young children alone since her husband, a health care worker, died early in the pandemic. “I just want a commission to look into what went wrong so this can be prevented, and I feel it would give me some closure knowing what happened and why.”

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