(Bloomberg) — The Biden administration has assembled a group that will prepare new countermeasures for the emergence of future Covid-19 variants and other pandemic threats, after the arrival of the omicron strain led to tumult in the U.S. economy and health-care system.
The Pandemic Innovation Task Force, formed by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, or OSTP, will focus on developing vaccines, treatments, diagnostic tests and other tools, said officials familiar with the matter, who asked for anonymity as the details aren’t yet public. That will help prepare the country in case new versions of the virus surface, and for future biological threats beyond Covid-19, they said.
While some officials stressed the group wasn’t created specifically as a response to omicron, it begins its work as the variant fuels unprecedented case counts and hospitalizations in the U.S. Health officials have warned that new variants could pop up and once again shift the understanding of, and threat from, the virus.
Though studies suggest that omicron causes milder infections than previous strains, hospitals have seen beds fill with an influx of patients. Additionally, rapid tests have been in short supply, and businesses have been disrupted by infected employees having to isolate.
Unlike the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the new group won’t focus on day-to-day pandemic response or the omicron variant, or things like distribution of vaccines, testing and therapeutic treatments.
Instead, it will work on preparedness projects that could be used to manage waves of new variants that could emerge within six months to two years, as well as other threats.
By building and exercising new capabilities, the U.S. will bolster its long-term biodefenses, according to the people.
The task force, which is led by President Joe Biden’s Science Adviser and OSTP Director Eric Lander and Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness at the Department of Health and Human Services, met for the first time on Tuesday, according to the people.
Its mission builds on a $65.3 billion 10-year proposal drafted by OSTP and the National Security Council to combat future pandemic threats. The task force will draw on aspects of the plan to test some of those longer-range ideas in the medium-term, according to the people.
The task force’s work “complements the ongoing Covid response by focusing on potential innovations that could become available in the next 24 months, building on the vast range of advances and lessons since the beginning of the pandemic,” OSTP said in a statement.
Representatives from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, as well as leaders across HHS, attended the virtual meeting, which will continue to be held weekly, according to one of the people. Among those present were officials from the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Office of the Surgeon General and the Defense Department.
The new task force could focus on developing diagnostic tools that distinguish between variants to help guide treatment, updating vaccines to protect against multiple variants, identifying new drug candidates, or securing additional manufacturing capacity, according to the people.
Though corporate executives weren’t invited to the initial meeting, the task force will seek to work collaboratively with health-care companies, according to the people.
Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in a Wednesday meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations that the new group will also focus on managing the “endemic phase,” where the virus circulates seasonally.