Americans need to establish what went wrong with the pandemic

A COVID-19 commission could interview officials from the U.S. military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence, which in November 2019 issued a report warning about the coronavirus then emerging in southern China. Panel members could also interview Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, who was first notified about the new disease on January 3. They could speak with the White House national security adviser and his deputy, who warned the president of the threat on January 28. The list of people with potential insights also includes authorities at the local, state, and federal level; intelligence and law-enforcement officials; diplomats; border-control officials; pharmaceutical executives; and employees of global-health institutions. The COVID-19 commission should analyze resource-allocation blunders, potential failures of oversight by the White House and Congress, and the inability of the federal government to leverage its full weight to combat the disease.

The questioning should sidestep the politics of the moment—as members of the 9/11 Commission tried to do—and focus firmly instead on what the nation could have done better. As with the 9/11 terror attacks, the coronavirus pandemic is not the result of a single misstep. Our pandemic failures are the result of years of unpreparedness across administrations and months of downplaying the severity of the virus. The Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council’s pandemic-response unit in 2018, but America’s cycle of inattention to disease-related threats has roots that go back much further than that.