Paradigm Shift by Pandemic

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Nobel-winning biologist Joshua Lederberg warned “the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.”  The Covid19 pandemic is a wakeup call to this existential truth.

The reality of the novel coronavirus pandemic must now usher in a paradigm shift in the way we think about and prepare for global security threats, whether natural or human-engineered.

The revolution in biology, including genomics and gene editing, makes it possible for state and non-state players to design microbes and viruses for civilian medical research or biological weapons.  The dual-use nature of biotechnology makes it difficult to determine the intent of an adversary.

Contrary to online rumors, to date there is no evidence that Covid19 is the product of a state laboratory experiment deliberately or accidentally released in Wuhan. Nor is there evidence that infected carriers traveled from China to intentionally spread the contagion. To insinuate foul play without evidence is irresponsible, whether the charges come from Russia, China, or U.S.

If a country intentionally unleashed such a virus, there would be grave implications. As a deterrent, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review envisions U.S. nuclear retaliation in extreme circumstances of biological or cyber attack.

The Covid19 outbreak is most likely a natural occurrence, but this does not diminish the import of the wakeup call for the U.S.

This is the seventh emergent coronavirus known to afflict humans. As a zoonotic infection, it crossed to humans from wild animals presumably through proximity. Covid19 is less lethal or incapacitating but far more contagious than the genetically similar SARS-2003.  There is no guarantee that the next evolutionary version – a successor is almost inevitable – will be less infectious or lethal than Covid19.

As national security analysts and former White House advisers, we see several important lessons that should comprise a paradigm shift for our national preparedness.

First, precisely because of its severity, we must embrace the implication of this pandemic. As bad as this global outbreak is, Covid19 is not of the scale that it could have been and might be, especially if the virus mutates towards greater lethality.

If we learn lessons from it – if we understand the need for deep changes – we might be better prepared for the big one.

A bi-partisan 9-11 style commission should be formed to study what events led to this pandemic and what policies need to be improved or pioneered to respond to future threats.

Second, 2020 is a wake-up call for massive public investment in systemic resilience. We must go beyond previous false starts. During brief periods after the  2001 anthrax attack, the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, and the SARS-2003 outbreak, there were bursts of funding and new policies. But the interest of political leaders faded. Robust policies that could have saved lives and prevented such economic chaos were tragically not implemented.

Indeed, until this pandemic, major budget cuts were being made to basic scientific research and preparedness. Our governmental preparedness infrastructure was being gutted. This strategic retreat must be reversed even beyond the bold steps taken in the unprecedented Covid19 emergency funding measures of 2020.

Third, we must think big. Very big. We should set clear moonshot goals for bio-forensics, diagnostics, detection, contact-tracing, data-sharing, countermeasures, medical training, telemedicine, basic science, and genomics – in short, a national anti-crisis operating system.  The Manhattan Project and the Space Program are useful reference points in terms of urgency and scale.

In pursuing these goals, our leaders must embrace evidence-based science and assiduously avoid anti-science political rhetoric and denial, whether relating to the threat of disease or global warming, which is linked to the coming age of the great pandemics.

Fourth, there is no strategic trade-off between our nation’s health, security or the economy.  We must bolster all three together.  Our objective is to reap long-term dividends through resilience.

Just as the U.S. economy has been driven by the birth of the digital economy, so will the next economic leaps be driven by biology and artificial intelligence. In both these areas, the Chinese have launched Manhattan-scale projects of their own, which we must compete with for economic, strategic, and humanitarian reasons.  Both the Chinese and Russians believe that the nation that wins the scientific race in these areas will control the world.

Fifth, we must strive to control our own destiny in terms of strategic supplies. Put America first.  This is not in derogation of free-trade or vitally needed multilateralism, but because supply chains can break down in crisis, as they have in this case.  At this juncture China produces 90% of our antibiotics and over 70% of the ingredients needed to produce drugs in the United States. This must change.

Sixth, intelligence gathering on biological threats is hard but essential. Mistakes during the Iraq war have made intelligence agencies wary of the area.  We recommend forming an interagency center for tracking and forecasting biological threats.

Seventh, on the multilateral front, we must strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention of 1975 to force greater global transparency into biological research.  Our own research facilities must be open to inspection. We must insist reciprocally on seeing inside secret labs in China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and elsewhere.

Eighth, the current pandemic proves this is not just a job for governments. As in addressing climate change through R&D and deployment of renewable energy technologies, the private sector has a central role to play in creating solutions to withstand biological threats.

Ninth, we need to devise plans for the continuity of both government and business functions in a pandemic.  The current crisis is showing us the impact of public and private shutdowns whether due to a virus of nature or one created by biological or cyber hackers.

Tenth, we must build a comprehensive and resilient nationwide infrastructure. Moving towards a more dispersed population and revitalizing rural America with universal broadband, good healthcare through telemedicine, and improved education will make us a more resilient society.

Just as President Eisenhower invested ½ trillion dollars (2020 dollars) for the national highway system which revolutionized the country’s economy and demographics, so would investment to build cyber highways to all America decentralize the current vulnerability of our economic base.

The good news is that we met existential challenges during the nuclear standoff in the Cold War.  The bad news is that we have taken our success for granted and ignored the gathering storm of natural and man-made threats.  We must re-learn lessons from the nuclear age, build a resilient system against cyber or biological threats – ensuring the continuity of government and society.

When physicist Robert Oppenheimer witnessed the first nuclear test, he quoted a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds.”  This image conveyed his awakening to the raw power of both nature and science.

The imperative before us today – as a modern society newly woke by pandemic – remains to lead in science as we have since 1945.  But to do so we must heed Albert Einstein’s advice, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.”

Joel McCleary, an expert on biodefense, served in the Carter Administration. 

Mark Medish served on the National Security Council in the Clinton Administration.