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BERNSTEIN: Congress needs to get its act together to help Americans

Congress needs to work for the American people and help get us out of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis. Part of that means ensuring mass distribution of vaccines and passing a stimulus bill. – Photo by Wikimedia

Within the last few weeks, America and the global community at large have had the luxury of shifting the target of its collective anxiety from questions about the development of an effective coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine to questions about its deployment.

Two vaccines –– one developed by the biotechnology company Moderna and one developed by the companies Pfizer and BioNTech SE –– have proven more than 90 percent effective in clinical trials and are on track to be approved in the near future. Pfizer expects to have 50 million doses available by the end of 2020.

Many news sources and health professionals have responded to this news with the same warning: Yes, this is good news, but continue to be patient. Most Americans will not have access to the vaccine for several months due to the challenges of mass production and distribution. Vaccination in the future does not translate into decreased vigilance in the present.

On the one hand, I am in full agreement that an attempted return to "normal" at this point in time would be a disaster. COVID-19 rages more violently across the country now than ever before. The U.S. COVID-19 infection rate has hovered around 160,000 new cases per day in the last week or approximately two cases per second.

Every American has a responsibility to limit their social interactions if we want this winter to be anything but a disaster. We have to accept this.

But we also should accept another hard truth: The U.S. government's handling of COVID-19 has demonstrated a level of mass ineptitude within Congress and the executive branch of government in dealing with a global crisis. While healthcare workers and researchers worked tirelessly to provide Americans with medical care and develop therapies for COVID-19 treatment, the response of the federal government has been apathetic and fatal at best.

As we near the final, and likely most painful, stage of the pandemic, our federal institutions of government have the capacity to save lives, speed the process of vaccine deployment and ease the burdens nationwide that accompany such a crisis.

To pretend otherwise –– to pretend that concrete steps cannot be made by the government to aid in the production and distribution of vaccines or to pretend that a federal response to the virus would not save both U.S. dollars and lives –– would only be an admission on the part of the federal government of its own incompetence.

One direct way in which the federal government could aid the process of vaccine deployment is by using its legal power to prevent intellectual property disputes and restrictive patents from slowing the manufacturing process. Moderna has already promised not to enforce the patent rights to its vaccine during the pandemic.

Pfizer, on the other hand, has made no such promise, and Pfizer is already poised for a legal dispute with another company, Allele Biotechnology, regarding the methods it used to create its vaccine.

Because the U.S. government did not contribute to the funding of Pfizer's vaccine development, its options in legally compelling Pfizer to share its patents are limited. At the very least, though, Congress and relevant executive agencies should be having talks with Pfizer about maximizing the rate of vaccine distribution and mitigating any delays caused by legal obstacles.

If Pfizer is open to offering its vaccine licensing freely or at a reduced cost, then the U.S. government ought to actively facilitate the manufacturing of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine across a wide range of private and public institutions.

Congress in particular has the power to aid the country on its financial front as well –– a second stimulus package has the potential to carry countless Americans, whose financial stability has crumbled under the weight of COVID-19, through the final months of the pandemic. The fact that partisan quibbling has delayed a second stimulus package is unsurprising but nonetheless unacceptable.

If the purpose of Congress is in any way to represent and address the needs of American citizens, then action on this front is imperative. COVID-19 is one of the precious few issues which poses a serious threat to each state and district of the U.S. at the same time and more or less in the same ways.

If Congress cannot provide meaningful assistance against such a ubiquitous and imminent threat, how can we expect it to tackle more nuanced and complex political issues in a constructive manner?

Overcoming such a tenacious virus as COVID-19 is no easy task. But it is the responsibility of the U.S. government to exercise its control over the situation wherever it can to minimize the suffering of its people. Healthcare professionals, essential workers and small business owners need support, not excuses.

In the last months of the pandemic, let us not be plagued by congressional gridlock or needless legal obstacles in the fight for a vaccine and economic stability. America can be patient, but it can only be patient for so long.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore looking to major in cell biology and neuroscience and mathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Fridays. 


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