Pentagon Official: ‘Duration of Ebola Crisis Unknown’
The Pentagon has quickly escalated efforts to help contain the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. But the Defense Department’s response came too late to prevent what has now become an international health security crisis.
“This has the potential to be the biggest biological event in my lifetime,” said Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs.
“The duration this of crisis is unknown,” he said Oct. 7 during a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.
After six years overseeing the Pentagon’s chemical, biological and nuclear programs, Weber will be leaving his post in two weeks to join the State Department as a deputy to Ambassador Nancy Powell, who was appointed by President Obama to coordinate the State Department’s response to the Ebola outbreak.
Although the U.S. government for years had anticipated the possible spread of the deadly Ebola virus, the current crisis could not have been prevented by the United States alone, and was exacerbated by a lack of preparation by the international community, Weber said.
“Ebola has always been on the threat list that we’re concerned about,” he said. But the scope of this crisis requires a global effort, Weber said.
The Obama administration launched the Global Health Security Agenda and recruited 44 partner nations to secure a commitment to assist West Africa build up its health infrastructure. “We need a five year effort to make sure those countries have the capabilities to detect and respond to threats,” said Weber. “We have a shared vulnerability with air travel. We’re only as safe and secure as the weakest link around the world. This has to truly be a global effort.”
The lesson from this outbreak is that “We need to step up our game and make sure those countries have those capacities.”
The Defense Department and the Department of Health and Human Services have been at the forefront of drug and vaccine research. Weber oversaw the development of ZMapp, the experimental drug that was used to treat two American public health workers who contracted the Ebola virus and survived. A new vaccine is in medical trials. “DoD and HHS have been the only investors in medical countermeasures for these rare diseases,” he said. “They’re orphan drugs, with no commercial market, Big Pharma doesn’t have an interest.”
But drugs alone cannot fix the problem. What fueled the outbreak is the dilapidated medical infrastructure in the affected countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — after years of civil wars. “Even basic supportive care like fluids and hydration would have helped contain the outbreak,” said Weber.
The newly formed global health regime has to make sure that every country has the capacities required under international health regulations to prevent and respond to public health crises, he said. “Had we had those capacities in place in West Africa, the outbreak wouldn’t be in the headlines today. It could have been prevented and isolated. Because those countries have very fragile public healthy systems, it has started to spiral out of control.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has projected the virus will spread at a rapid pace. “We can get ahead of this but right now we’re playing catch-up,” said Weber. “It’s going to be a major effort to turn the curve if we don’t slow down the outbreak.”
The U.S. government has set up an information sharing website Ebolaportal.org for governments and NGOs to collaborate.
The U.S. military is deploying mobile laboratories and trained technicians in West Africa, and providing logistics support. “Training is very important as we build Ebola treatment units," said Weber. "We need trained heath workers who can do infection control without getting themselves infected.”
One bit of good news, Weber said, is that the U.S. military presence in West Africa is helping calm people’s nerves. A senior CDC official who returned from the region yesterday told Weber that, compared to his most recent visit a month ago, hotels were now full of expats and volunteers.
“DoD actions on the ground have restored confidence,” he said. “They know evacuation will be available if someone is infected.”
The Pentagon is seeking $1 billion in emergency funds for Ebola response efforts, but that will only last six months. The U.S. military will deploy 3,200 troops, including 700 from the 101st Airborne Division headquarters to Liberia. These forces will deploy in late October and become the headquarters staff for the Joint Forces Command, led by Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky. The White House said total U.S. troop commitment will depend on the requirements on the ground. A future training site in Liberia will train up to 500 health care providers per week.