Looking Back at NCT Virtual Hub June
Pandemic Response and Preparedness
NCT Virtual Hub - June “Pandemic Response and Preparedness” took place on Tuesday, 1 June 2021. Our second virtual mini event, highlighting the importance of addressing the challenges and lessons learned from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was attended by over 100 participants from 22 countries around the globe.
The virtual conference opened with the remarks of Ms. Anna Paternnosto, Vice-President of CBRNe society, and BG (Ret.) William King, Former Commander of the US Army 20th CBRNE Command, who co-chaired the event. The first and second panels were composed of experts in key roles in their countries and organizations' responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as assisting in identifying some of the pandemic’s most crucial lessons learned. The panelists; Dr. Kevin Wingerd JPEO-CBRND, JPM Medical US, AJM Jan Vaes from Queen Astrid’s Military Hospital in Belgium, Mr. Andy Weber, a senior fellow at The Council on Strategic Risks (US), LTC Bernd Allert, representative of the JCBRN Defence CoE, and Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli, the Director of Medicine at the Hospital of Bergamo, Italy, addressed topics such as supply-chain management issues, the importance and advantages of strategic communication, and the critical role that information gathering and sharing plays in constructing an effective response to challenges such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In the first part of the discussion, the panelists commented on various questions regarding the supply chain management and the national/international response that took place. Dr. Wingerd stressed the issue that states need to be open minded, avoiding a reactive posture, and “start looking outside normal” venues regarding their common medical supply chains. For instance, when lack of tubes was reported, his country’s officials looked towards alternative suppliers such as laboratories. Thus, understanding and identifying the supply chain possibilities within commercial world is paramount to ensure a successful response. For Mr. Vaes, his country’s (Belgium) plan was rather insufficient, and everyone was very “tunnel-visioned.” The national PPE stockpile had been destroyed several years before the start of the pandemic, posing even more challenges for policymakers in Belgium. As he mentioned, the most important thing is data sharing and usage while having flexible guidelines. Mr. Weber added that a sufficient stockpile of supplies is also important in order to deter adversaries from attempting to use biological weapons. He stressed the fact that a national/global warning system is an important step in the path to achieve faster responses to emerging threats such as COVID-19.
Regarding the main impact on hospitals and the strategic communications management, the panelists provided the audience with interesting answers. Mr. Weber mentioned the importance of hospitals to plan and exercise routinely and Dr. Wingerd argued that there is no need to focus that much on high-tech medical countermeasures but on the low-tech ones: at the end, the lack of syringes or ventilators made a big difference during the fight of first responders. He also added that the goal must be to treat people quickly in order to keep them in the fight even with manageable symptoms. Regarding the miscommunication, Mr. Weber stressed the vast number of deaths due to contradictory messages. Mr. Vaes did agree that it is “difficult to cope with communication when everything is changing rapidly.” Dr. Wingerd concluded that, if no education takes place nor investments and correct preparedness, a similar situation may repeat in the future when the next pandemic comes.
At the end of the first session, participants were invited to join a live demonstration. In the demonstration, First Line Technology presented their innovative AmbuBus conversion kit. The kit’s purpose is to provide first responders with an effective and efficient solution for the mass evacuation and transport of special needs patients, casualties, and people who do not need an ambulatory transport. This is done by converting an existing busses framework into an ambulance bus using the Stretcher Conversion Kit.
The second panel welcomed LTC Bernd Allert and Dr. Stefano Fagiuoli. Regarding the questions on the National Strategy of Countries during this period, LTC Allert noted that the Biological/Toxin Convention is not focusing on “natural epidemics” and an overall approach to reach a solution for future ones is lacking. There is also room for improvement in terms of preparedness. Dr. Fagiuoli added that sharing information and disclosing it is “critical for an international plan” and that the most effective way to proceed is following a top-down, flexible plan with correct communication. Regarding the key elements of the exercises, for Dr. Fagioli, it was imperative that the operators have access to as much information as possible and participate in educational sessions. A more targeted training system must also be established for different specialties. A general information sharing is the “general way of management.” For LTC Allert, exercises must be accompanied with lessons learned and surpass the hinders caused by budget restrictions. He also agreed that a multinational cooperation is important in order to respond on time. On the same note, when addressing the dimension of situational awareness and the ability of technology to enhance decision-making capabilities to allow for an effective response and understanding of threats such as COVID-19, the panelists reiterated the importance of data and information. As Dr. Fagiuoli mentioned, artificial intelligence can help to improve decision-making processes by building forecasts based on amounts of information which are too difficult for humans to put together. Similarly, LTC Allert agreed that intelligence and an extensive amount of data are instrumental, and that a system should be in place which is able to compile such information to allow for the construction of a timely response.
When asked about their views regarding the impacts of COVID-19 on countries’ approaches to national and international security, LTC Allert pointed out that it is imperative to use military capabilities and logistics to support the mitigation efforts as a result of the limits of national capacities. He further stressed that these capabilities should also be used in an inter-state context, where military capabilities of nations can be harnessed to support each other, and “make the best out of” the available civil and military capabilities. Dr. Fagiouli strongly agreed and mentioned that is important that both military and civil arms work together and complement each other’s capabilities, and that states need to be educated that threats such COVID-19 are transboundary, disregarding national borders.
Lastly, the panelists gave their final remarks and insights on whether the lessons from COVID-19 have been truly learned. LTC Allert expressed his belief that the right conclusions would be effectively drawn so that a COVID-19-like scenario will not occur again. In Dr. Fagiuoli’s view, efforts should still be made to raise awareness and there should be more focus on training and exercises in order to prepare for similar scenarios. However, he elaborated that, improvements in information disclosure, communication, education and training at all levels, and flexibility, will truly account for our lessons learned from this pandemic.
The 3-hour event provided the CBRNe and EOD community with the opportunity to network, engage in discussions, and critically reflect on prominent issues evident in the responses and lessons learned by states and organizations to COVID-19.
We would like to sincerely thank all our delegates and speakers as well as our sponsors: First Line Technology, Bruker, Eurosatory.