Not If, but When: A Warning

Last month, my colleagues and I released a series of memos addressed to the Trump Administration and Congress describing the state of national and global health security and our recommendations on how to strengthen it. This is the second set of health security memos to an incoming administration that we’ve written. We write these transition memos to help new staffers navigate the complex biological threat environment, and to understand the programs and concepts that have been developed to address those challenges. As a result, the memos cover a wide range of topics, including public health and healthcare preparedness, the organization and funding of the federal health security enterprise, biosurveillance, community engagement, the security implications of synthetic biology, and others.

I’d like to focus here on a prediction that can be found in our memos, and has also been recently articulated by other subject matter experts. That is the judgment that this administration can expect to face a severe infectious disease emergency at some point during its tenure.

To wit (emphasis mine):

“If history has taught us anything, it is that the new administration is likely to experience at least one infectious disease crisis of significance. We have learned from the past decades that it is important to have strong global surveillance systems; transparency and honest communication with the public; strong public health and health care infrastructure, or capacity building efforts where needed; coordinated and collaborative basic and clinical research; and the development of universal platform technologies to enable the rapid development of vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. We also have learned that it is essential to have a stable and pre-established funding mechanism to utilize during public health emergencies similar to a FEMA-like emergency disaster fund. What we know for certain is that emerging infections will continue to be a perpetual challenge, requiring the attention of all Presidents to come.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director, National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases

“Finally, the near and long term challenge most in need of a global response is that of emerging infectious disease. Terrorism and cyber threats have featured prominently in all three of the transitions on which I worked.  Most recently, in my transition meetings with my successor, I urged that the new administration will need to maintain a third focus when it comes to transregional threats that will keep people up at night: infectious disease.

It is a virtual certainty that the new administration will be challenged by some new pathogen, one that no wall will keep out. Ebola and Zika showed us pandemics need not have a malicious origin to take lives, cause panic, and drain resources. This will take focus, resources and precisely the sort of global cooperation that is difficult when countries feel alienated from American leadership. The Global Health Security Agenda, championed by the Obama Administration and now 50 countries strong, must be sustained. It requires United States investment and leadership to ensure that countries continue transparent, independent health assessments and are accountable for progress.”

Lisa Monaco, Former Assistant to President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and Deputy National Security Advisor

“It's not if, but when these events are going to occur again…We need to ramp up our preparedness.”

Dr. Peter Salama, Executive Director, Health Emergencies Programme, World Health Organization

“Each POTUS has faced outbreak crises: AIDS, SARS, Bird flu, swine flu, Ebola. Just a matter of time.”

Jeremy Konyndyk, Former Director, Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance, USAID

“…it is safe to assume that one or more events that require a national-level response will occur in the near term. As a result, ensuring a high degree of public health preparedness should be a national priority.”

Matthew Watson, Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Matthew Shearer, Diane Meyer, JHSPH Center for Health Security

While I’ve highlighted just handful of examples above, I don’t think this is a particularly controversial position. Anyone with a passing familiarity with microbiology or epidemiology would probably agree.

A couple of things strike me as notable. First, the consistency and near-certainty of the message. While the occurrence of infectious disease outbreaks is highly stochastic, the sheer volume of recent, off-normal biological events - to include the 2001 anthrax attacks, biosafety lapses, and major epidemics or pandemics like SARS, H1N1 influenza, MERS, Ebola, Zika, and others - strongly suggests more to come.

Just why these events have been coming at such a rapid clip, and why we should expect more, can be explained by several different factors including environmental degradation, a changing climate, available and affordable international air travel, changes in human behavior and consumption patterns, the mutation rate of pathogens, and the occurrence of spillover events. In some cases, human failings such as malevolence or carelessness have come into play. For me, though, the most important contributing factor is that humanity is getting really good at recognizing cases and clusters of viral, bacterial, and fungal infections. We can now watch epidemics develop in real time, and we are increasingly on the lookout for emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. The increasing speed and accuracy of surveillance and diagnostic systems makes it critical that we develop a more nuanced appreciation of the risks posed by a given outbreak or pathogen, both in public and in the halls of power.  Some rational setting between indifference and panic would be optimal. 

Second, this warning of outbreaks to come is being sounded by a diverse group of scholars and practitioners from both poles of the health security spectrum. Now, it’s important to remember that individual judgements are just that, and it’s understood that expert judgment is not infallible. But taken in aggregate, I would suggest that these statements can best be understood as a warning that should be taken seriously at the highest levels of our government.

That’s what we know. What we don’t know, and what is probably unknowable, is the source, scale, severity, and nature of the next infectious disease emergency. The past 16 years have seen naturally occurring outbreaks, intentional events that can rightly be characterized as attacks, and accidents.

To ensure that we’re able to meet the next threat when it inevitably arrives, strengthening our national and global health security posture should be a high priority for this administration.


My thanks to research assistant Ashley Geleta (@ashley_geleta) for her help in preparing this post.