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Bill Gates stood in front of world leaders and warned: “We ignore the link between health security and international security at our peril.” It was early 2017, and the tech billionaire-turned-global-health philanthropist was speaking at the Munich Security Conference about a pathogen transmitted through the air that “could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year.”
Three years later, the coronavirus pandemic has not killed as many people as Gates feared, but it has infected more than 15 million, filled hospitals and killed more than 630,000. Overwhelming governments, the virus has, at various points, shut down most of the planet and wrought havoc on the economy.
Bioterrorism experts now worry the West is even less prepared for a biological attack. Worse, the devastation caused by Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, could motivate rogue states or terrorist groups to use a similar pathogen against their enemies, said Andy Weber, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Strategic Risks.
Weber, an Obama administration assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, says he is most concerned about countries like North Korea using it, “because we know North Korea has an advanced biological weapons program.”
That program led the U.S. to organize a series of exercises with South Korea from 2011 to 2013 to prepare for bioterrorism attacks, involving more than a dozen Korean and American government agencies. “I believe those exercises are one of the reasons that the Republic of Korea’s response to Covid-19 has been so effective,” he said. The United States and South Korea continue to partner on a biosurveillance project: the Joint United States Forces Korea Portal and Integrated Threat Recognition Advanced Technology Demonstration.
Russia is another concern, given its past use of chemical weapons. Most recently, Russian agents deployed the Novichok nerve agent in the British town of Salisbury in March 2018 — an attempt to assassinate a former Russian military officer-turned-double agent.
Salisbury was forced into a lockdown, not unlike the measures imposed in the U.K. this year to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. “The cleanup operations ran into the millions” of British pounds, said Jamie Shea, a British national who was the NATO deputy assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges until September 2018.
Responding to a natural biological attack
In his 2017 speech, Gates said that “most of the things we need to do to protect against a naturally occurring pandemic are the same things we must prepare for an intentional biological attack.”
The worldwide race for a coronavirus vaccine can serve as a test run, then, for our bioterrorism response.
Since there are only a couple dozen families of viruses and humans now have the ability to read and edit DNA, they should be able to quickly develop vaccines, medicines and antibiotics for a wide range of pathogens, according to Weber.
Whether it comes from natural causes or from an enemy, the crippling effects of a new virus are the same, said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador to NATO, now head of the Brussels office of Project Associates, a consultancy. Stefanini thinks NATO should have reacted to coronavirus in the same way it would react to a biological attack, he said.
In the future, the defense alliance should consider how to help its members better prepare for this kind of emergencies, maybe as part of their defense spending budget, he said. When a vaccine would be approved, NATO could play a significant role by using its logistics to help deploy it to member countries and maybe to other countries, as well, Stefanini said.
NATO Spokeswoman Oana Lungescu rejected this criticism, saying the organization is not the first responder in these situations. That’s up to nations, but NATO can use its capabilities to support them, she said.
The alliance has helped its members transport personal protective equipment for their health care workers, she noted, and the U.K. and Germany flew in additional supplies from Turkey and China, for example. Troops also helped set up makeshift hospitals in their home countries and in other allied states.
At their meeting in mid-June, NATO defense ministers decided to create a stockpile of medical equipment to support member countries and partners and agreed to a new fund to help acquire extra medical equipment “should the need arise,” she said. That may soon be the case, with the number of coronavirus cases rising again in some European countries and the U.S.
Supplies are key for preparedness. Many countries in Europe allowed their stockpiles to dwindle over the past two decades, as governments became complacent when they saw that outbreaks such as SARS, avian flu, MERS or Ebola didn’t turn out as badly as feared, according to Jamie Shea, the former NATO official. “Coronavirus has been an enormous wake-up call,” Shea said.
COVID VACCINE RACE LATEST
Trump races to make vaccine his “October surprise”: No health experts believe a vaccine will be fully ready, let alone widely available ahead of the November U.S. presidential election. “Realistically it is going to be the first part of next year before we start seeing people getting vaccinated,” Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s emergencies program said this week. That isn’t stopping President Donald Trump preparing to claim victory via “Operation Warp Speed” as he angles for reelection.
By the numbers: There are now at least 198 vaccines and 277 Covid-19 treatments in development. Even those making the best progress expect to have vaccines publicly available by 2021, at the earliest.
The Art of The Deal: The U.S., Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands have signed up for a potential AstraZeneca vaccine that creates a strong immune response, according to a study published Monday. Participants had the best response when an initial shot was followed by a booster shot 28 days later. U.K. is contracted to buy 30 million doses of a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that will soon be tested on 30,000 volunteers. The U.S. also announced this week that it would pay $1.95 billion for 100 million doses of it. Meanwhile, the European Commission has yet to sign a vaccine deal, despite taking on the role of negotiating on behalf of EU member countries. An Indian drug mogul says Americans will pay too much for the Covid vaccine—and wants to change that.
A Chinese coronavirus vaccine developed by CanSino Biologics also showed a promising immune response in human tests, with Mexico saying a few days later that China was planning to provide a $1 billion loan to make its vaccine accessible to countries across Latin America and the Caribbean.
GLOBAL HEALTH SNAPSHOTS
Four ways drug companies can reduce racial disparities: Minorities make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population but less than 20 percent of participants in key clinical trials. To change that, Eli Lilly’s Tim Garnett and Joy Fitzgerald argue that drug companies should locate clinical trials closer to patients’ homes, use more virtual visits, perform fewer low-use tests and collect less data; and reduce eligibility requirements such as those which eliminate people with multiple conditions.
Masks at what price? China is using forced Uighur labor to produce face masks that end up being worn by people around the world.