The threat of infectious diseases, pandemics and bioterrorism (“When nature is the terrorist” WPost editorial, 2-24-17) [https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/when-nature-is-a-terrorist/2017/02/23/57bed82e-f942-11e6-bf01-d47f8cf9b643_story.html] should not be held on the same “level as preventing nuclear war or climate change”. Why? Because they represent a greater threat to individual, national, and global security than wars or climate change combined. Even if one considers the inevitable escalation of global interactions between war and climate change.
Few people remember that shortly after the attacks on 9-11 former …Collin Powel told the UN that HIV/AIDS was a greater threat to national and global security than al Qaeda. It was because that RNA based virus (with a 3% mutation rate) contributes directly to the failure of nation states which sustains the spawning ground for every strain of violent extremists.
Consider the inevitable emergence of a single pandemic that could be equal to - or potentially greater than -- the impact of the so called “Spanish Flu” of 1918. According to historians that pandemic played a major role in stopping World War I while killing more US soldiers than the war itself and killing nearly 500,000 Americans back home in about 16 months. Imagine how such a pandemic today would freeze any ongoing war including the war against climate change.
Just the inevitable loss of our antibiotic arsenal alone (not mentioned in the Post editorial) could lead to an existential threat of civilization as we know it -- if it happens before breakthroughs in bioengineering new solutions to combat all infectious diseases. But remember, it is just such breakthroughs added to existing advancements in biotechnology that make bioterrorism a greater threat than a nuclear terrorist attack or a limited nuclear exchange. Imagine a genetically engineered virus that would kill anyone who had not received the vaccine that was bioengineered by the same scientists intending to protect only their nation (N. Korea?), their terrorist group (ISIS?), or their environmental cult who feel threatened by the current dominance and trajectory of world powers.
There are at least three mental problems most policy makers and their electorate must overcome to rationally and effectively respond to all individual, national and global security threats. First, we must stop thinking that these threats are independent of one another and urgently invest in global prevention and preparation efforts. This could best be accomplished by enforcing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or fully funding and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals as rapidly as humanly possible. These threats (pandemics, war, terrorism and climate change) that all nations face cannot be effectively addressed by independent national policies. Independent government and institutional policies will fail in multiple aspects of offering a comprehensive global approach.
Second, we must do what we know we must do. Abide by that fundamental “Self-evident” “Truths” in our Declaration of Independence, that all people are created equal (ie. With a body temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.)
Last, we must learn and persistently remember the greatest human achievement in history. The eradication of Smallpox in 1977 (official in 1980). Up until then nature’s smallpox had killed more people globally in the 20th century than both World Wars, all murders, revolutions, and genocides combined. The US invested $32 million in this global eradication campaign which (according to a 1997 GAO report) had saved $17 billion dollars in US tax payer money by then. No longer needing to pay to protect the lives of US children yielded these unbelievable health and economic returns to all Americans that continues today. And here’s the astounding fact that needs to be remembered. If just one nation, religious group, or remote family had rejected this global vaccination effort, this natural terrorist would still be circulating among us today. It still exists in some laboratories. And, given the natural evolution of all pathogens and human’s increasing technological prowess in changing them (google ‘Weaponized Smallpox’) means that Smallpox, or variations of any pandemic like virus, will remain a threat -- unless we are as indiscriminate in taking care of one another globally as viruses are to infecting us if our body temperature is 98.6 degrees.
In conclusion I offer the profound words of Nell Temple Brown, former head of the WHO office in Washington DC. She said “Pathogens change. Can we?”