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Op-ed: U.S. should enlist tech companies to build global quick response system to prevent future pandemic

It’s not too late for the United States – driven by the cutting-edge capabilities of its technology companies – to leverage the coronavirus tragedy into a historic opportunity. It would be built around scientifically novel but increasingly available means to prevent future pandemics through constructing a “global immune system.”

David Bray, the director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center, launched this year to help harness emerging technologies for good, has been pioneering the concept of a “Pandemic Prevention Board” as a significant first step. He likens the system to a previous time when the public “had to be convinced there was a need to install smoke detectors in large buildings linked to the fire department and automatic sprinkler systems to put out the fire.” 

The PPB initially would be an industry-driven answer to the now-obvious need, in the words of Bill Gates, for world leaders to “take what has been learned from this tragedy and invest in systems to prevent future outbreaks.”  Gates, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, laid it out this way: “We need to save lives now while also improving the way we respond to outbreaks in general. The first point is more pressing, but the second has crucial long-term consequences.” 

The involvement of global governments would be essential, in the best case by planting seeds as early as the U.S.-hosted G7 summit on June 10 or the Saudi-hosted G20 meeting on July 18 or at the United Nations General Assembly in September.  The dream outcome would be that public and private sectors worldwide would join hands urgently in a multi-faceted and coordinated effort that would produce a truly “new world order” out of our existing Covid-19 chaos.

Don’t hold your breath for that kumbaya moment.

If this period has taught us anything it is that our political leaders of 2020 mostly were ill-prepared for the virus. Their responses thus far haven’t been sufficiently cooperative, coordinated or pro-active to meet the historic challenge. With China and the United States on a collision course that’s only likely to accelerate ahead of November’s US elections, an industry-initiated approach could kick-start some tension-reducing collaboration, also among political leaders.

The PPB would represent an alliance of technology companies focused on advancing solutions to safeguard against future low probability, high consequence pandemics – either naturally occurring or manually designed. Though experts are afraid to say this out loud and thus tempt fate, the Covid-19 impact has also impressed terrorist and extremist groups about the low-cost, high-impact destructive power of pathogens.

In Bray’s plan, the board’s flagship initiative would center around the concept of building an “immune system for the planet” that could detect a novel pathogen in the air, water or soil and rapidly sequence its DNA or RNA.  This detection would then trigger rapid sequencing to fully characterize the pathogen. Once sequenced, high performance computers would strive to identify both the three-dimensional protein surfaces of either the virus or bacteria and then search through an index of known molecular therapies that might be able to neutralize the pathogen.

The exponential reduction of the time required to take on a biothreat agent would save lives, property and national economies. With advances in biosensors, the Internet of Things and high-performance computing, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine real-time data collection to identify problems early and guide responses.

However, before getting too lost in the technologies that could make such a system work, it’s worth reflecting on the cruel lessons of history that should shift even the harshest critics of multilateral collaboration into a more collaborative spirit to advance global resilience against future waves of the Covid-19 virus and future pandemics.

It is essential we do this, finding a way to collaborate across nations and business sectors, while we still have the chance.

I’ve been rereading two books in the past days that richly relate history’s lessons, must-reading for today’s leaders.

Margaret Macmillan’s “Paris 1919” illustrates how the United States and its European partners failed the test after World War I; Dean Acheson’s “Present at the Creation” chronicles in great detail how, chastened by that experience, President Harry Truman and others used the post-World War II years to construct an international order that has delivered more than seven decades of growing prosperity and relative peace among major powers.

Paris 1919 “is a study of flawed decisions with terrible consequences, many of which haunt us to this day,” writes the late Richard Holbrooke in the book’s foreword. A single paragraph can’t settle the debate over President Woodrow Wilson’s degree of blame for that failure. He had plenty of accomplices among the U.S. and international leaders of those times. However, what followed is undeniable: nationalism, fascism, the Holocaust and World War II.      

“Present at the Creation” is about a post-war challenge, writes Acheson, that was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process. The wonder of it is how much was done.”   

That leaves today’s leaders to either watch the existing, rules-based global order – with all its flaws and dysfunctions – tear apart under the coronavirus strain. Or they can search for ways to finish Acheson’s half-complete job by creating something more inclusive, drawing upon public health as an indisputable common cause.

That could advance the concept of a world where the U.S. and China continue to compete fiercely in large number of other areas, but where at the same time they show they can collaborate as well. That would begin with collaborative efforts to keep their citizens healthy from future novel pathogens, but they at the same time could establish habits that serve other concerns ranging from climate and trade to avoiding a modern-age superpower war with devastating consequences.

“Washington’s sins of omission and Beijing’s sins of commission have conspired to sideline international institutions, helping frustrate their common goal of ending the pandemic,” write Thomas R. Pickering and Atman M. Trivedi this week in Foreign Affairs.

They point to previous times when the U.S. and China engaged in cooperative research and shared information to combat SARS and the avian flu in 2003, the swine flu in 2009, and the Ebola virus in 2014. During the Cold War, they write, Moscow and Washington “quietly collaborated on polio and smallpox vaccines.”

It may seem hopelessly naïve to expect an even more ambitious degree of global collaboration now, but history’s lesson is that the alternatives are horrifying.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth” – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week’s top stories and trends.

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