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Feb. 11, 2020, 11:43 a.m. EST

We must fight pandemics as if we were preparing for war

Our only advantage over coronavirus and other killer microbes is our intelligence

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By Julie Sunderland

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Public health and science

The second prong is strategic preparedness. We in modern societies put a lot of faith in our militaries, because we value the committed public servants and soldiers who vigilantly guard against threats to national security. But while our public health and scientific research institutions are stocked with similar levels of talent, they receive far less government support.

In 2018, President Donald Trump’s administration shut down the National Security Council’s unit for coordinating responses to pandemics. It has also defunded the arm of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that monitors and prepares for epidemics.

But even more corrosive has been the administration’s public denigration of science, which erodes the public’s trust in scientific and medical expertise.

It is only a matter of time before we are confronted with a truly lethal pathogen capable of taking many more lives than even the worst of our human wars. We are intelligent enough as a species to avoid that fate.

Consider a scenario in which the U.S. is attacked by another country. We would not expect the defense secretary suddenly to announce that, in response, the government will quickly build new stealth bombers from scratch while it plans a counter-offensive. The idea is ridiculous, yet it accurately reflects our current response to biological threats.

A better approach would be to recognize health workers and scientists for their service, create the infrastructure to develop and deploy emergency health technologies, and proactively fund the organizations tasked with pandemic response.

As a first step, the U.S. government should reestablish the shuttered NSC unit with a dedicated “pandemic czar,” and fully fund the agencies responsible for managing the threat, including the CDC, the Department of Homeland Security, and the National Institutes of Health.

America First doesn’t work

The third prong is a coordinated global response. Although it is antithetical to Trump’s idea of “America First,” a multilateral response to pandemics is obviously in America’s national interest. The U.S. needs to lead on issues where cooperation clearly has advantages over national-level policies.

The U.S. should support global mechanisms to identify and monitor emerging pathogens; coordinate a special force of health workers that can immediately deploy to epidemic sites; create new financing facilities (such as global epidemic insurance) that can quickly mobilize resources for emergency response; and develop and stockpile vaccines.

Here, the first step is for governments to increase funding for CEPI, which was created after the 2014 Ebola epidemic to develop and deploy vaccines. The agency’s initial funding, provided by a coalition of governments and foundations, totaled only $500 million, or about half the cost of a single stealth bomber. Its budget should be far, far larger.

In the arms race with pathogens, there can be no final peace. The only question is whether we fight well or poorly. Fighting poorly means allowing pathogens to cause massive periodic disruptions and impose huge burdens in the form of lost economic productivity.

Fighting well means investing appropriately in science and technology, funding the right people and infrastructure to optimize strategic preparedness, and assuming leadership over coordinated global responses.

It is only a matter of time before we are confronted with a truly lethal pathogen capable of taking many more lives than even the worst of our human wars.

We are intelligent enough as a species to avoid that fate. But we need to use the best of our knowledge, talent, and organizational capacity to save ourselves. And we need to focus on responsible preparation now.

Julie Sunderland, a former director of the Gates Foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund, is a co-founder and managing director of Biomatics Capital Partners.

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This article was published with permission of Project Syndicate Pandemic Panics.

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