The beat goes on. Lest we think otherwise, on the 25th President Obama took time out from a busy schedule at the U.N. to tell the assembled dignitaries that Ebola in West Africa is going critical. It’s a “horrific disease,” he said; and “[i]f unchecked, this epidemic could kill hundreds of thousands of people in the coming months.” [1] But this is more than simply a health crisis. “This is a growing threat to regional and global security.”[2]  Health systems have collapsed in the affected areas, and the economy there is slowing dramatically.  “If this epidemic is not stopped, this disease could cause a humanitarian catastrophe across the region.  And in an era where regional crises can quickly become global threats, stopping Ebola is in the interest of all of us.”[3]

So what does this mean? Simply put, a really severe plague can kill lots of people; people are the engine that powers an economy; when economies fail, governments often aren’t far behind; wars can result, with even more disruption in the plague-infested areas; this further interferes with quarantine efforts and the local delivery of health care, and leads to more plague, plus possible outbreaks of other endemic diseases; and so on, and so on. War can follow plague and plague follows war. And, of course, terrorism prospers in failed states. [Hopefully we learned that last part in Afghanistan.]

Anyway, last week the President announced that the U.S. would deploy about 3000 troops to West Africa, where they will construct 17 Ebola Treatment Centers, train local health care workers, and set up a logistics chain to support relief efforts. The President reported that the commander of that operation is “on the ground” in Monrovia [Liberia]; and “our teams are working as fast as they can to move in personnel, equipment and supplies.” [4] But, and this is the central thrust of his presentation, other nations need to do more to help control the outbreak.

You can find the speech at http://www.defense.gov/home/features/video/player.aspx?AQY0KjevwAg . It’s not long; only a few minutes; but well worth your attention.

The Secretary of Defense followed up the next day at the Global Health Security Agenda.[5] His talk, while relatively short, raised some interesting points. These included

  • “[S]cientific, economic and demographic trends are magnifying the risks of outbreaks of infectious, whether they begin with an accident, terrorism or nature. Such events threaten not only the health of our citizens, but also geopolitical stability.[6]
  • DoD has the “responsibility for protecting the health and readiness of its armed forces,” but is also “prepared to help respond to outbreaks of infectious disease that may threaten the stability of nations … and regions.”[7]
  • The DoD program for West Africa is called Operation United Assistance. DoD’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program offers “unique resources and expertise to enhance detection and surveillance,” [8] presumably of Ebola.”
  • DoD has a “longstanding research program” to protect the health of its troops against infectious disease, “including Ebola.” Because of that, DoD has been able to provide “critical diagnostic tools.”[9]
  • DoD is “accelerating the manufacturing of potential treatments”[10]
  • “On Wednesday [September 24], we [DoD] received approval to begin safety testing for one vaccine candidate, which will be conducted here at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.”[11]

There are a lot of points here for an enterprising journalist to follow up. Is there a written policy on when, or under what circumstances, DoD will intervene in health emergencies? Do we have mutual agreements with other countries about this? What ‘unique techniques” are there to survey Ebola? What “diagnostic tools” are currently in use? What potential treatments are being manufactured and how effective are they? What potential vaccine has been approved for safety testing, and what other candidates are in the queue?

We don’t know the answer to any of those questions, and we’re not trying to pick on DoD for mentioning the possibility of treatments, vaccines and the like. It just seems that, if our Government is going to supply and use such things in humanitarian efforts overseas, our bureaucrats ought to be able to tell us more about what’s going on. We’d like some more information, please. We’re the voters, not the enemy. [12]

There was another Ebola-related event last week that was very informative but mostly unseen by the public. Why? Not because of a conspiracy or anything like that. It just escaped the notice of anyone important in today’s media, except for the folks over in CSPAN. I’m speaking, of course, of the Congressional Seminar on the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, held on September 24 and, as of this writing, viewed by less than 700 people.[13] The panelists included a couple of people that we’ve heard of, and several we haven’t; but all of them know what they’re talking about and merit your attention. Be warned, however, the presentation goes on for more than an hour.

It’s all interesting, but the one piece we paid particular attention to had to do with bioterrorism. According to the DoD representative on the panel, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula put out a call for “brothers with degrees in chemistry and microbiology to develop weapons of mass destruction.”[14] Terrorist groups have tried, and failed, to obtain anthrax cultures, and no doubt they’re still interested. But an innovative and enterprising terrorist/microbiologist doesn’t have to limit herself [or himself] to anthrax. Wikipedia, for example, lists a lot of potential candidates, including Rift Valley fever, Ebola, Japanese encephalitis, Marburg and Yellow fever, all viruses.[15]

The DoD Representative didn’t cite Wikipedia, by the way; that’s just us putting words in his mouth. But his basic point is that, to the extent these pathogens are housed in poorly guarded or controlled facilities, they are tempting targets for terrorists. Pathogen collections should be consolidated into fewer and better protected facilities. There’s a five year plan for that, and he hopes to have it, or something like it, adopted internationally.

That’s a good idea; but before we get all focused on terrorism as the sole or most important source of plague in the modern world, we need to look back at what his boss said. Outbreaks can begin with “an accident, terrorism or nature.” Right now, the best information seems to be that our current Ebola outbreak comes from nature. As in previous cases, it seems to have jumped from fruit bats – considered a delicacy in parts of Africa – to humans, thus proving that the highest place on the food chain is not always the safest.

 

[1] See The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Remarks by President Obama at U.N. Meeting on Ebola (September 25, 2014), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/25/remarks-president-obama-un-meeting-ebola

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] This is from the text of the speech, but there’s also a short article on the speech in DoD News. See DoD News, Pellerin, Obama Urges Countries, Organizations to Do More to Fight Ebola (September 25, 2014), available at http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=123265 The article is most noteworthy because it also discusses potential bioterrorism.

[5] You can find the text for this at DoD, Press Operations, Remarks at the Global Health Security Agenda (September 26, 2014), available at http://www.defense.gov/Speeches/Speech.aspx?SpeechID=1888 We’ll refer to this as Hagel Sept. 26 at __.  For context, take a look at an earlier, background work on emerging diseases. See Garrett, The Coming Plague, Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance (Farrar, Straus, 1994).

[6] See Hagel Sept. 26 at 1.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] You can find the video at http://www.defense.gov/video/default.aspx?videoid=362937&videotag=Featured+Videos&videopage=1

[13] This is a CSPAN video, available at http://www.c-span.org/video/?321685-1/congressional-seminar-ebola-outbreak-west-africa

[14] Actually, I’m quoting here from the article referenced in n. 4.

[15] That’s only a small part of the list. For the whole thing, go to Wikipedia at Biological Warfare, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biological_warfare

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