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A warning for the next pandemic

A warning for the next pandemic
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As Congress moved this week to quickly approve critical federal funding to combat coronavirus that has been spreading at a voracious speed, the sad truth is that the United States and the world are woefully unprepared for the next and potentially even more deadly pandemic threat.

Late last year, I visited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and asked the director, Robert Redfield, what keeps him up at night. Even with all the other biothreats, he said what he fears most is the current global lack of preparedness for a flu pandemic. But when I asked him what gives him hope, it was telling that he said “science” because “we either have the answers or we can find them.” The fact is that we have the scientific know how to stop such outbreaks at their sources, but we simply do not have the political will to sustain long term American investments in preventive global preparedness so that science can win the day, especially when a dangerous pathogen can travel anywhere in the world in 36 hours.

Let me be clear that our most urgent priority right now must be an “all hands on deck” response to stop coronavirus. However, this should be a grave warning sign of the danger we face when a staggering 70 percent of the planet remains underprepared to prevent, detect, and respond to a public health emergency. Bill Gates regularly warns us that a worldwide pandemic flu could kill millions of people in only a matter of months and could cost the international economy a $3 trillion in productivity.

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Like our military, we cannot budget based on the wars of yesterday, or even in this case, of today. The fact is that investments in preparedness will not only save lives but are also much more cost effective. According to a new publication by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, baseline preparedness across the world can cost just $1 per person each year. When compared to early projections that the lost economic cost of the coronavirus outbreak could be $12 million for each individual case, that is a bet on prevention that I would make any day of the week.

Nonetheless, we will not be able to protect ourselves from the next deadly pandemic unless we match the resources in global health security to the scale of these future threats. From severe acute respiratory syndrome to bird flu and swine flu to ebola and zika to coronavirus, unfortunately, it is like Groundhog Day. When the headlines fade, our attention fades.

On the budget front, up until now, Congress and the administration have called for only slight increases in global health security funding, but they simply have not matched the funding levels for preparedness immediately after the ebola crisis. In 2018, the White House National Security Council eliminated its global health security unit. This year, the administration proposed a dangerous $3 billion cut to global health programs.

If our leaders can find the political will, there is a successful blueprint for action. Just before the 2014 ebola outbreak, the United States and dozens of other countries committed to an international framework, known as the Global Health Security Agenda, to protect ourselves by strengthening the health systems all around the world. During the last five years, the United States has focused on 17 developing countries totaling a third of the world population. At the heart of this initiative is the hard work led by the United States Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to invest in countries at the most risk.

These kinds of critical investments are promising. Last year, for instance, the further spread of ebola outside of the Congo was averted after a child with the disease crossed the border into Uganda. The rapid response by the national authorities was impressive. The family was quickly tested and quarantined by trained health workers. All the potential contacts with the family were identified and then traced. The successful result was that the ebola threat in Uganda swiftly ended and no new crisis emerged.

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Legislation to build on this work and the call for a global health security strategy is thankfully moving in Congress, led by Representatives Gerry Connolly, Representative Steve Chabot, and Senator Angus King. These policymakers know that American investments in the State Department, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the frontline defense to contain such dangerous outbreaks before they ever reach our shores.

When Washington was debating how to respond to the current crisis at home and abroad last week, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby said it best, “If you low ball something like this, you will pay for it later.” The same is true for investments in prevention. This crisis is a reminder that a deadly virus threat anywhere is a threat everywhere, and our safety is on the line. It is imperative that we not only address this threat, but have an equally robust commitment to global preparedness in public health, because the next pandemic could be even worse.

Liz Schrayer serves as the president and the chief executive officer of the United States Global Leadership Coalition, an alliance of businesses and organizations that advocate for American diplomacy all around the world.