As COVID-19 crisis ebbs, some Hunting 9/11-style commission

With more than 600,000 Americans dead of COVID-19 and queries still raging about the origin of the virus and the government's answer, a push is underway on Capitol Hill and beyond for a full-blown investigation of this crisis by a federal commission like the one which looked into 9/11.

As COVID-19 crisis ebbs, some Hunting 9/11-style commission

It's unclear whether such a probe will ever happen, though a privately sponsored group of public health specialists is already laying the groundwork to get one.

Given that nearly all of the disaster unfolded on President Donald Trump's opinion, many worry that politics could get in the way of any inquiry, as occurred when Republicans came out against a commission to research the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol from Trump supporters. Others fear that a desire by many to simply move on will thwart a review.

"I think we need to enter the weeds, to examine the facts to see what occurred," said Sabila Khan of Jersey City, New Jersey, whose dad, Shafqat Rasul Khan, died of COVID-19.

Its inquiry could have a look at the origins of the virus; ancient warnings and other communication with foreign authorities; coordination among national, state and local agencies; the availability of medical supplies; testing and public health surveillance; vaccination growth and distribution; the uneven effect on minorities; and government relief policies.

"The death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic is more than 200 times that of the 9/11 strikes -- but Congress has yet to set a similar blue ribbon commission to inquire into the vulnerabilities of our public health system and issue guidance for how we as a country can better protect the American public from potential pandemics," Menendez and Collins wrote in an essay this week at The New York Times.

While the government crash program to develop a vaccine demonstrated a victory, the tragedy at the U.S. was marked by shortages of protective equipment and other medical equipment, insufficient testing, defective test kits, false or misleading information regarding treatments, and mixed messages on the need for masks and lockdowns.

Last month, President Joe Biden ordered U.S. intelligence to step up its efforts to investigate the virus's origins, including the possibility it escaped by a Chinese lab, a once-fringe theory that has gained currency in recent weeks. Many scientists have said they instead think the virus occurred in character and jumped from animals to humans.

Dr. Naeha Quasba of Baltimore, who lost her father, Ramash Quasba, into the outbreak, said that she favors an investigation that could hold others accountable for their failures, which she stated include the lack of a federal response plan, inadequate health financing and lackadaisical enforcement of public health dictates.

"But now, my dad is gone and now a vaccine is available," Quasba said. "So people are moving on to another stage."

While no vote on the legislation is scheduled along with the prospects of passage are unclear, work is happening that may help shape an investigation: Participants of what is called the COVID Commission Planning Group have been at work for five months, trying to think of the vital questions to get a commission and the most effective ways to have answers.

University of Virginia history professor Philip Zelikow, who's directing the planning group and was executive director of the 9/11 Commission, stated dozens of specialists have been entrusted with all assistance from charitable foundations and have identified over 40 lines of question.

"All that preparatory work is being done to be put at the disposal of whatever commission gets generated, if it is created by the Congress, created by the president created independently and privately sponsored," he said.

Established by Congress in late 2002, the 9/11 Commission made a 567-page report in July 2004 that started with a detailed story of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings. It went into the causes of terrorists' hatred of the U.S., lapses that helped enable the attacks to occur and suggestions for preventing a different one. Many of its suggestions were implemented, including higher intelligence-sharing involving agencies.

Planning group member Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard's School of Public Health, said one possible alternative to a government-appointed COVID-19 commission would be one which is privately funded.

"The upside is that it could be done in a politically charged manner," Lipsitch said.

Another planning group member, Anita Cicero, deputy manager in the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the disagreement over whether to research the Capitol attack demonstrated that the partisan divide is the first barrier to overcome in this circumstance.

"The thought that this is a commission set up by one party or another, I believe that is sort of dead upon birth. So you need to locate a way that this is a truly more bipartisan and welcome effort," she explained.

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