Joe Biden Criticizes Donald Trump’s Plan to Close Pandemic Preparedness Office

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign criticized Donald Trump on Tuesday for saying that, if elected, he would close an office in the White House tasked with ensuring the country is better prepared for the next pandemic.

In an interview published Tuesday, Trump said he would disband the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy (OPPR), which opened last summer after Congress approved a bill in 2022 with bipartisan support to mandate its creation. The office most recently responded to an outbreak of mad cow disease in dairy farms, coordinating with the Food and Drug Administration to ensure milk remains safe to drink, and working with farmers to contain the virus.

Trump described the office to TIME as “a way of giving out pork” and said an effective pandemic response could be mobilized once a virus emerges. “I think it sounds good politically, but I think it’s a very expensive solution to something that won’t work. You have to move quickly when you see it happening,” Trump told TIME.

The Biden campaign compared Trump’s comments to his haphazard response to the COVID-19 pandemic during his last year in office, when he claimed the virus would disappear “like a miracle” and would “go away without a vaccine” and suggested during a White House press briefing that the virus could be cured by injecting patients with bleach.

“Pandemic preparedness isn’t abstract to the millions of Americans that lost a loved one because of Donald Trump’s failed response to COVID-19,” said Kevin Munoz, a senior campaign spokesman and the former spokesman for White House’s COVID-19 response during the beginning of the Biden administration. “We know the impact of Trump’s inability to lead all too well: an economy in shambles, schools closed down, and far too many American lives needlessly lost. We cannot afford to go back.”

After Trump took office in 2017, he disbanded the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense. The Obama administration had set up that directorate after the Ebola outbreak in 2014 exposed just how unprepared the U.S. was for a rapidly spreading epidemic coming from overseas. Without that office in place, Trump’s White House found itself scrambling to coordinate a response after the first signs emerged that the COVID-19 virus was spreading in China. Biden restored that directorate with his first executive order.

In late 2022, Congress, seeking to add more resources to prepare for future pandemics, passed the PREVENT Pandemics Act, formally establishing the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy. The office is currently run by retired Maj. Gen. Paul Friedrichs. The Biden White House has requested $6.2 million to fund the office in fiscal year 2025.

The office keeps Americans ready for biological threats and pathogens, says Dr. Raj Panjabi, who previously served as Biden’s top NSC official for pandemic preparations. Shutting down the OPPR “would leave Americans, as it did in 2020, deeply unprepared to respond to a pandemic and run the risk of leading to the same kind of chaotic response that we all saw with bodies piling up in trucks that had to be converted into morgues in New York City and ultimately to a loss of lives that are preventable and avoidable,” he says.

Trump’s comments, adds Panjabi, “just shows he’s not serious about it now, which is just absolutely absurd after over a million Americans lost their lives to this.”

Trump also claimed in his interview with TIME that previous administrations had not prepared better for a pandemic than he did.

“I’m not blaming the past administrations at all, because again, nobody saw it coming,” Trump said. “But the cupboards were bare. We had no gowns, we had no masks. We had no goggles, we had no medicines. We had no ventilators.”

It’s true that when Trump came into office, the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile, an integrated collection of secret, federally-controlled warehouses packed with medical and protective equipment, was short on supplies. That’s because President Barack Obama deployed resources from the stockpile for public health emergencies such as the swine flu and the Ebola outbreak. When Obama tried to refill the stockpile, Tea Party Republicans blocked the new funding. In his first three years as President, Trump never attempted to replenish the equipment. That proved costly once the pandemic struck. By April of 2020, the U.S. government had depleted 90 percent of its supplies.