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THE HILL: Disease knows no borders: Responding to coronavirus

By Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Opinion Contributors — 02/03/20 09:30 AM EST 141
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill  

More than 170 people have died. More than 7,800 are infected in more than twenty countries and officials expect the already grave situation to worsen. While it may seem a world away, the new coronavirus out of Wuhan, China is a crisis in its own right that is demanding a vigorous response.

The World Health Organization has now declared that this outbreak constitutes a global health emergency. Domestically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has put in place protections to guard against the potential spread of this virus, while public health officials are monitoring more than 100 cases across two dozen states.

This crisis must serve as a warning. We are only one new, or mutated, disease away from a global health catastrophe and the United States must continue to lead the way in preparing the world for such an outbreak. Currently, however, U.S. global health security efforts and the interagency capacity to respond to such outbreaks as the coronavirus are largely reliant on an executive order and not specifically supported in law. That is why we introduced the bipartisan Global Health Security Act (H.R. 2166) in order to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to promoting global health security.

The Global Health Security Act codifies U.S. investments in developing preparedness and response capacity abroad for public health threats to reduce or prevent their spread across borders. This bill also bolsters U.S. commitments under the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA), which is a U.S.-lead multilateral initiative to build countries’ capacity to manage infectious disease threats and elevate heath security as a global priority. The United States has already committed $1 billion to support partner countries and strengthen implementation of the International Health Regulations’ core capacities across 11 technical areas. In October 2017, the United States and nearly 50 other nations agreed to extend GHSA for an additional five years to 2024, in order to continue strengthening our data sharing, preparedness planning, surveillance capacity, risk assessment, and response to biological threats.

Further, our legislation would require the president to make a senior-level official responsible for overseeing our interagency global health security apparatus. One of the critical lessons learned during the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak was that the National Security Council is best equipped to coordinate an interagency pandemic response. In fact, this is the primary recommendation of a recent CSIS report on Strengthening America’s Health Security, namely the importance of “a senior-level leader in charge of coordinating U.S. efforts to anticipate, prevent, and respond to biological crises.”

For unusual, high consequence, biological events, like the Ebola or coronavirus outbreaks, overarching, senior-level, clear coordination is essential because the normal interagency process becomes muddled. During such events, U.S. departments and agencies are unable to provide clear guidance or oversight to one another, and precious time is lost – costing lives and economic consequences. Even when we are not in a crisis, the fact that our global health security capacities are spread across a dozen agencies calls for sustained leadership from the top.

Republican and Democratic presidents alike have recognized the critical importance of global health security – from President Obama’s role in launching the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) to President Trump’s National Security Strategy and National Biodefense Strategy.

In January 2019, then-Director of National Intelligence Daniel R. Coats, released the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, which said, “We assess that the United States and the world will remain vulnerable to the next flu pandemic or largescale outbreak of a contagious disease that could lead to massive rates of death and disability, severely affect the world economy, strain international resources, and increase calls on the United States for support.”

Whether it is the present Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the unfolding coronavirus in China, or the next unknown epidemic, it is clear that these threats are ongoing and increasing. As we’ve seen time and time again, disease knows no borders, and global health crises have immense security, economic, and humanitarian consequences. We know that saving lives from the next global pandemic starts with investing in preparedness before it strikes. Our Global Health Security Act allows us to do just that.

Connolly represents Virginia’s 11st District and is a member of the Oversight and Reform Committee and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Chabot represents Ohio’s 1st District and is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

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