Quo Vadis – Unprepared for the Next Pandemic?

By Guy B. Roberts

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical Biological Defense Programs

The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how people live and work around the world. Whether these changes are permanent or good or bad remains to be seen. But regional security and diplomacy are as relevant as ever even though they may require a mask to execute. While they always should have been, epidemics and pandemics are important national and global security concerns.

Given the focus now is understandably on responding to Covid-19, it is equally important that this crisis serves as a wake-up call with respect to inadequacies in preparedness and response that threaten not just tragedy on an unprecedented scale but the basic national, regional and global security. No part of the world can insulate itself from the consequences of these scourges.

Indeed, the USA, like almost every other country, was (and remains) unprepared to cope with a mass casualty bio event. Unlike Asian nations, the USA did not experience and thus did not learn from the SARS outbreak of 2003 nor heed President Bush's 2005 warning to prepare the nation for a pandemic. Leaders at every level of government—federal, state, local—downplayed the threat until it was too late. The desperate circumstances forced nations to use the bluntest tools available: shutdown. and quarantine-- the same tools used in the 1918 flu pandemic.

There are and will be many more lessons to be learned but I want to focus on what I consider the two most critical; namely the lack of preparedness and the importance of nations collaborating in fighting bio attacks such as the current pandemic.

Addressing the lack of preparedness.

Recently, an independent and authoritative commission was established to analyze and present lessons from epidemic and pandemic outbreaks. The Commission issued its final report last January, entitled Global Health Risk Framework for the Future. The Commission concluded that the threat of pandemic disease could originate anywhere and spread everywhere. It warned that despite all the advances of science and technology, “the global community has massively underestimated the risks that pandemics present to human life and livelihoods.

As the world becomes more globalized with the movement of goods and people, as climate change disrupts the environment, and as pathogens move between humans and animals, we can expect to see more infectious epidemic and pandemics. As the panel warned “further outbreaks of new, dormant, or even well-known diseases are a certainty.” Nations need to recognize that pandemic risks must be treated not as distant, avoidable possibilities but as a real clear and present national security danger.

Likewise, nations need to invest in being prepared to confront disease enemies of mankind. In order to do so, funding should be increased for research and development of new therapies. It’s time to stop telling Congress and Parliaments that pandemics are a low probability event.

Today we have a revolutionary new class of molecular tools that scientists can use to precisely target and cut any kind of genetic material. This new technology, called “CRISPR systems,” is a fast, easy and cheap method to manipulate the DNA of any organism on earth, including humans. As a technology that is ubiquitous, easily available to all, we will have to wrestle with the possibility that CRISPR systems might be used to produce biological weapons of unfathomable destruction.

“As a technology that is ubiquitous, easily available to all, we will have to wrestle with the possibility that CRISPR systems might be used to produce biological weapons of unfathomable destruction.”

A Whole of Society Approach.

The US 2018 Bio Defense Strategy recognizes the necessity of working “with multinational organizations, partner nations, private donors and civil society to control disease outbreaks at their source by supporting the development and implementation of biodefense and heal security capabilities, policies and standards”. It also recognizes that a collaborative, multi-sectoral and trans disciplinary approach is necessary to counter biological threats effectively and efficiently.

This month we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe where we defeated the Nazi “pandemic” of tyranny and genocide. Leaders then acknowledged that victory could not be won unless the allies worked together. Winston Churchill famously remarked that “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies and that is fighting without them.” Frankly, we won't do very well unless we collaborate, coordinate and work together with nations around the globe. Indeed, one of the most important lessons of the present pandemic is that the sooner world leaders recognize the need for a whole- of- society approach the more likely we can prevail early in this war against this Hostis Humani generis.

Given the worldwide availability of biological materials, technologies and expertise, and the potential for infectious disease to spread across borders, an international approach is crucial to ensure that detection of, and defenses against bioterrorism are global in scope. Unfortunately, the reality is that there is very little cooperation even amongst allies when an actual pandemic attack occurs. When I was at NATO, we established a “virtual stockpile for allies to signal their commitment to collectively respond to outbreaks of infectious disease. Despite pledges to do so, no European ally made even a “virtual” contribution to the “virtual stockpile.”

COVID-19 has also called into question the European Union solidarity. When Italy appealed for help this year to the EU’ Emergency Response Coordination Center, none came. It couldn't entice a single country into coming to Italy’s aid. Likewise, Spain and other hard-hit countries received little or no support from the EU.

In Southeast Asia, senior officials from Vietnam, which has established a comprehensive national bio surveillance network, told me they’d take the lead in establishing a regional bio surveillance network but needed US political support to convince nations in the region to work together. Nations with limited resources could pool limited resources to share in the event of an outbreak.

What is needed now is a new level of cooperation and commitment to do what is necessary to effectively respond in a timely fashion to the next bio attack by Mother Nature or an enemy of mankind. And as Queen Elizabeth urged during VE day remembrance this month, “Never Give Up.” We won’t but next time let’s make sure we have the tools to fight immediately and effectively and declare victory with our allies and partners.