How to reduce both nuclear and pandemic threats after COVID-19

By James E. Doyle | May 19, 2020

Maryland national guard stockpile Members of the Maryland Air National Guard prepare and load medical supplies and equipment at the Maryland Strategic National Stockpile location, March 19, 2020. Image credit: US Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Christopher Schepers.

In the span of just a few short months, more than 300,000 innocent people worldwide have lost their lives to COVID-19. The rapidly spreading virus is infecting people in nearly every nation on Earth. The worst may be yet to come.

The virus reveals fundamental flaws in the strategies nations employ to provide security for their people. What will governments learn from this pandemic and what must they do differently in the future to safeguard their populations?

Success will require abandoning old concepts of national security and cooperatively allocating limited resources wisely to address the growing challenges of public health threats. This can be done only by coordinated international action.

A new international defense architecture against disease pandemics is needed that can be maintained at sufficient readiness and effectiveness and has flexible surge capability to defeat the next outbreak. The funding should be redirected from other areas of traditional defense spending, particularly nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons offer no protection from pandemics. Their use would create the perfect conditions for disease outbreaks while simultaneously decimating public health infrastructure. Recognizing these facts, nuclear-armed states should be willing to adopt a long-standing international goal by formally pledging never to use nuclear weapons first.  They should also immediately divert some portion of their nuclear weapons spending toward cooperatively strengthening global preparedness for future pandemics.

Inadequate funding. Current defense strategies drastically underestimate the threat from naturally occurring disease pandemics and the resources needed to adequately defend against them.

To date, COVID-19 has killed more than 85,000 innocent Americans, far more than the number of servicemen and women who died in the Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq wars combined. As the devastating health and economic consequences of the virus reverberate across the globe, human suffering will certainly increase and could reach levels approaching those caused by the world wars of the 20th century.

So the first vital lesson of COVID-19 is that the portion national defense spending devoted to pandemic preparedness in nearly every country is woefully insufficient. The national security forces of most nations remain focused on external military threats such as aggression by another state or terrorist organization. For example, only a tiny fraction of the more than $700 billion spent each year by the US Defense Department is devoted to pandemic prevention and response. These meager capabilities played almost no role in mitigating the disease and economic consequences of COVID-19. By contrast, the annual budget for the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is less than $7 billion.

In short, COVID-19 highlights the dangerous imbalance in US strategic thinking and defense investment. In order for American citizens and citizens of most other nations to feel confident that their governments are providing effective security against coronavirus and other diseases, unprecedented levels of investment must be shifted to public health defense.

Inadequate capabilities. A direct consequence of inadequate funding is inadequate capacities. The current global pandemic defense architecture is too small in scale and lacks key capabilities.

Most experts believe that the new coronavirus is a natural spillover that jumped from animals to humans. Such outbreaks have happened in the past and will happen again. In addition, terrorist groups or even individuals distributed across the globe may have the capacity for developing a synthetic pathogen.

As a first step to improving preparedness, countries need to increase the ranks of public health officials, first responders, doctors, government planners, and data modelers.

Maintaining a network of strategic stockpiles of needed equipment, supplies, and medicines is also a key aspect. The availability of such stockpiles in a crisis can improve the response to an outbreak and save lives, but they must contain the needed items in good order and have a distribution plan that meets the needs of affected cities and states. This was not the case for the US Strategic National Stockpile during the COVID-19 emergency. In the future, stockpiles will need to include more personal protective equipment, ventilators, and even mobile hospitals. As these items are depleted during a crisis, reliable supply chains must be pre-established to replenish stockpiles or send items directly to the location of need.

Another critical capability for countering future pandemics includes the tools for rapidly identifying and isolating those infected and those with whom they have had contact. Research and development for innovative technical solutions to this challenge should be accelerated and adequately funded. When future pandemics strike, the necessary infrastructure for free and mandatory testing for infection and antibodies should be ready. Government-supported guaranteed paid sick leave must also be available during future pandemics to encourage the ill to quarantine at home.

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All of the above will require financial support by national governments. The US government was fortunate to rapidly enact a pandemic relief package of more than $2 trillion in response to the emergency. The next goal should be to avoid the need to do so in the future through a sustained program of strategic reinvestment to strengthen public health capacity.

Inadequate international coordination. To be effective, however, national programs must be coordinated with as many other nations as possible. Current national strategies for pandemic defense are insufficiently coordinated and so cannot be effective against human disease outbreaks for which national borders are meaningless.

COVID-19 is a perfect example of an emerging category of threat that the global community will increasingly face in the 21st century and beyond. Due to the integration of the global economy, the constant movement of people across national borders, and humanity’s common reliance on the Earth’s environment for survival, the human species shares a vulnerability to multiple emerging threats. These include climate change, environmental degradation, disease pandemics, and global financial crises.

The nation-state is a poor unit of organization for countering these emergent, borderless threats because its ability to gather critical information and deploy resources is limited outside its national borders. It has long been realized that international organizations, multilateral and bilateral agreements, and regulated trade relationships are needed for effective response to global threats. This strategic philosophy must be taken to new levels.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 demonstrates without a doubt that the Trump administration’s “America First” strategy puts humanity last. Over the two years prior to the initial outbreak of COVID-19 in China, the Trump administration reduced the staff at the Beijing office of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by 70 percent, including withdrawing epidemiologists and other health professionals. The Beijing offices of the National Science Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development, which cooperated with China on monitoring and responding to pandemics, were also closed.

Even more bewildering is Trump’s decision in April 2020 at the height of the contagion in the United States to suspend funding to the World Health Organization. The organization serves as the global coordinator of clinical trials to develop disease vaccines, diagnostic tests, and treatments, and provides training and protective gear for health workers worldwide. The United States has traditionally been the greatest contributor to the 194-nation agency’s $4.8 billion budget. Prior to suspending funding, the Trump administration proposed slashing the annual US contribution to the agency by more than half.

These actions are the direct opposite of what the United States—and all countries for that matter—should be doing in seeking to improve the security of its citizens from pandemic threats. International organizations devoted to disease prevention and response must be dramatically expanded and adequately funded so that a network of linked outposts in countries and regions across the globe can provide early warning, detection, characterization, and response to public health threats. Such a network is needed to provide the critical biosurveillance data that can help prevent and counter public health emergencies.

Every country should create a national office for biosurveillance akin to the US National Biosurveillance Integration Center within the Department of Homeland Security, and these offices should network with one another to further enhance the capabilities of the World Health Organization and its member nations. In addition, the bureaucratic position of such organizations needs to be placed closer to the top of the national security decision-making hierarchy.

A focus on the wrong threats. The weakest feature of current strategic thinking is the continued imbalance of resources devoted to traditional external threats versus emerging global threats. Fortunately, this imbalance creates an opportunity to shift resources from one category of threats to the other without need to increase overall defense spending.

There is a contradiction between the ideologies of countering some traditional threats and the ideology of cooperative international efforts to safeguard against mutual threats shared by all nations.

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This is particularly true with regard to the threat of nuclear weapons use. After all, the linchpin of nuclear deterrence theory—that it is necessary and acceptable for individual nations to seek security for their citizens by threatening to annihilate the populations of other nations and cause the suffering of millions of innocent people—is antithetical to the ethic of cooperation needed to counter global threats to humanity. The declaration of the willingness to use nuclear weapons, essential to deterrence, is an explicit rejection of the goal of protection of innocent life.

The coronavirus spotlights this contradiction. For example, despite its devastating consequences, COVID-19 would be a very poor weapon. This is because its effects cannot be localized for a military mission. The chances that such a virus would severely damage the country that tried to employ it are simply too high.

The same is true for nuclear weapons. Their effects are too indiscriminate and unpredictable. The use of even a small number of nuclear weapons on populated areas anywhere in the world would cause human suffering more tragic than the coronavirus. Ironically, it would also create conditions for increased episodes of deadly disease outbreak while simultaneously decimating public health capabilities, creating a perfect storm of human misery.

This understanding alone should lead to new international efforts to reduce the chances of nuclear war and redirect resources away from expanding nuclear arsenals and toward strengthening defenses against future pandemics.

For example, the five nuclear-armed permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) could adopt a treaty pledging never to be the first to use nuclear weapons. The COVID-19 experience shared by these countries provides impetus to finally achieve this long-sought goal of nuclear arms control that would reduce the chance of nuclear war. China already has a no-first-use policy, and there is strong public support for one in the United States.

A joint nuclear no-first-use pledge would acknowledge the critical necessity of preventing nuclear war and the ensuing global health emergency from the death and injury of hundreds of thousands and the simultaneous destruction of medical response capability. The four other states that possess nuclear weapons (India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) should also join the treaty, and if they decline to do so, they should be politically and economically penalized.

Beyond this, all nuclear-armed states should pledge to divert 5 percent of their planned annual spending on nuclear weapons to the creation of a global disease surveillance system and to preparations for mitigating the public health consequences of future outbreaks.

Because the United States spends between $30 and $40 billion annually on nuclear weapons, its contribution to such an effort would be $1.5 to $2 billion per year. The remaining nuclear-armed countries combined spend roughly an additional $35 billion. This means that a total of approximately $3.5 billion could be spent on an international biosurveillance organization annually with contributions from nuclear-armed countries alone.

Ideally an international biosurveillance organization initially created in this manner would be joined by dozens of states that could both contribute resources and enjoy the security benefits of participation. One example of effective international cooperation to create a global monitoring system is the system established by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. The organization’s international monitoring system consists of 321 sensor stations and 16 laboratories worldwide. These 337 facilities monitor the planet for any sign of a nuclear explosion. The system is supported by a global communications infrastructure and international data center that rapidly distributes data on seismic and nuclear events to all member nations.

COVID-19 as a teachable moment. The coronavirus pandemic is a human tragedy. Adding to the pain is the fact that scientists and public health officials worldwide warned of this threat, but their warnings went largely unheeded. Humanity was caught unprepared. Future disease outbreaks are inevitable, but their consequences can be greatly reduced if governments learn to think differently about security in the age of emerging global threats.

Nationalistic thinking and unilateral actions cannot safeguard human populations from such threats. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the flawed ideology of nuclear deterrence. At its core, nuclear deterrence requires its practitioners to declare that they are willing to burn the global village to save their individual nations. Such thinking cannibalizes the collective human spirit, energy, and creativity that must be tapped to meet the security challenges of the future.

Nations can emerge stronger and more secure if they learn from the COVID-19 experience that their defense postures are dangerously imbalanced toward traditional threats. New capacities to meet public health, environmental, and economic threats are essential. Of course, these can only be effective with increased international cooperation and coordination. The changes in nuclear strategy and the creation of a multinational fund for a global biosurveillance system are small, reachable steps in the right direction.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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