Now is the Time for an Infectious Disease Moonshot
President Trump’s proposed 2021 budget cuts Federal funding for scientific research by nearly 9%, down from $156 billion in 2020. Furthermore, if the White House budget is passed by Congress, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH) will see their budgets drop by 6% and 7%, respectively, marking the fourth consecutive year funding for both will shrink. If we take one lesson from this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, it should be that cuts like these are a huge mistake. In fact, the Federal government should drastically increase funding for all scientific projects, namely those focused on public health, because the private sector will not make up the difference when the money dries up.
A 2017 report by the Brookings Institution found that private companies only fund about 3.7% of annual global health research and development. Companies simply aren’t willing to invest in a project if there’s no market for it, as seen, perhaps most dramatically, by a 2016 research project for a SARS vaccine that had their NIH funding cut after the SARS spread was controlled and subsequently could not find private sector funding because the disease was no longer viewed as a pressing concern at the time. It’s possible that vaccine, if mass produced, could have provided some protection against Covid-19.
President Trump has repeatedly called himself a ‘wartime president’ and referred to Covid-19 as ‘the invisible enemy.’ Rather than using this sentiment as a platitude for press briefings, Trump and future presidents after him should move to treat infectious diseases as a legitimate national security concern. After all, Covid-19 is projected to kill 60,000 Americans.
There is historical precedent for the Federal Government sponsoring scientific advancement in the name of national security. In 1958, following the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union, then President Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act into law. It set aside nearly 1 billion dollars to fund STEM education and research fellowships with the goal of spurring American scientific and technological breakthroughs. Three years later, President John F. Kennedy famously rallied the American people to support the Apollo Program in his 1961 Moonshot speech.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has shown us there needs to be a new Moonshot. The Federal Government should once again lend its full financial and moral support to the scientific community with the stated goal of developing treatments and vaccines for infectious diseases.
The most obvious benefit to a federal mobilization to defeat infectious diseases would be the high degree of preparedness it would bring to the country. When another highly contagious disease arrives in the United States, the medical and scientific communities would have the tools to fight it, rather than being required to learn on the fly.
There could be other secondary benefits as well.
Even if a disease had a fairly low chance of arriving in the United States and/or causing a severe outbreak, countermeasures developed by the country’s scientific and medical communities could still be shared with countries in high risk locations around the globe. American politicians often portray the United States as the “good guys” on the world stage and this would give the country the opportunity to actually live up to that lofty idealistic vision of America.
Furthermore, an all-in government endorsement of the scientific community could help stem the growing tide of anti-science sentiments (i.e. climate change denial, anti-vaccination beliefs) in the United States. Just as Kennedy’s speech in 1961 rallied the nation behind the herculean effort it would take to get to the moon within a decade, a president coming out to rally the nation behind a mission to fight infectious diseases could restore a respect for science that has seemingly waned in the last decade.
At the end of the day, Covid-19, despite all the sickness and death, has given the United States an opportunity. The crisis has shown that when the Federal Government is forced to mobilize its resources to solve a problem, things get done. When this pandemic eventually ends, this same energy should be used to defeat not only the virus that started it, but also the many others like it.
References  Mervis, Jeffrey. “Trump's New Budget Cuts All but a Favored Few Science Programs.” Science. Science Magazine, February 11, 2020. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/trump-s-new-budget-cuts-all-favored-few-science-programs.  Malakoff, David. “Trump's 2021 Budget Drowns Science Agencies in Red Ink, Again.” Science. Science Magazine, February 11, 2020. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/trump-s-2021-budget-drowns-science-agencies-red-ink-again#.  Schneider, Jake, John Villasenor, and Darrell M. West. “How Much Does the Private Sector Invest in Global Health R&D?” Brookings. Brookings Institution , September 12, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2017/09/12/private-sector-investment-in-global-health-rd-spending-levels-barriers-and-opportunities/.  Hixenbaugh, Mike. “Scientists Were Close to a Coronavirus Vaccine Years Ago. Then the Money Dried up.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, March 8, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-care/scientists-were-close-coronavirus-vaccine-years-ago-then-money-dried-n1150091.  Chappell, Bill. “Fauci Says U.S. Coronavirus Deaths May Be 'More Like 60,000'; Antibody Tests On Way.” NPR. NPR, April 9, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/04/09/830664814/fauci-says-u-s-coronavirus-deaths-may-be-more-like-60-000-antibody-tests-on-way.  “National Defense Education Act.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Accessed April 14, 2020. https://history.house.gov/HouseRecord/Detail/15032436195.