Outbreak: The Need for a Stronger U.S. Biodefense

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which killed at least 50 million people worldwide. In 2014, there was an outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that killed about 11,000 people in less than three years. In the United States, we seem to have a cultural fascination with infectious diseases. Box office hits like “Contagion” and “Outbreak” evidence the hold they have on our collective imagination.

Although they made for great films, how prepared is the U.S. for another major virus like the Spanish Flu? We currently spend nearly $700 billion annually on defense. But such expenditure focuses primarily on military base maintenance, designing and building new ships and aircraft, weaponry, personnel costs, and strengthening cyber defense. An almost negligible amount goes into biodefense. Given the ability of disease to tear through a population, there needs to be a policy shift toward a focus on biodefense so that a new outbreak cannot ravage the U.S. and other countries, including our allies.

The relatively recent Ebola outbreak demonstrates that the United States is not nearly as prepared as it ought to be. The problem rests, in part, in the fact that the disease spread quickly. There was too little time to respond and prevent the death of 11,000 people. In our interconnected and global economy, people can travel halfway across the world in a matter of hours. Although that is good for business, it’s a serious problem in fighting the spread of diseases.

Imagine the effects a breakout like the Spanish Flu would have on the modern world. In 1918, global travel was possible and it did contribute to the crisis. Soldiers returning from Europe after World War I helped spread the virus, but they had to spend many days at sea to get home. Today, a sick person can go from New York to London in six hours. This amplifies the rate of contagion. That a disease can now spread across the world in a matter of hours gives governments little or no time to react.

We cannot and should not allow the threat of disease to isolate us from the rest of the world. We gain too much in exchange--culturally  and economically--to risk cutting ourselves off. Although vaccinations and quarantines help minimize the risk of disease entering the country, we need a more robust strategy. I believe that increasing spending on public health, sanitation, and biological research is the best way to preemptively fight these diseases and viruses.

The United States must allocate more resources to public health organizations. Moreover, we must invest in better health and sanitation infrastructure. Increased spending on research and development of vaccines is also critical. While there may not be a cure for Ebola and other viruses, vaccines must be developed to help stop their spread. In a world facing the threats of terrorism and nuclear war, viruses often go under the radar. They are not talked about until they appear—killing thousands. When the threat is gone, we go about our daily lives. But they remain a very real threat, and the U.S. must do a better job in preparing for the worst.