JUST IN: Expert Calls for Pandemic Preparedness Effort Akin to 9/11 Response

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

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BALTIMORE, Md. — Just as the United States stood up a sprawling and enduring counterterrorism apparatus after the 9/11 attacks, the nation needs to establish a pandemic preparedness system that can address emerging biological threats for years to come, said the secretary of defense’s former advisor for COVID-19 issues.

“Since 9/11 we never went back down to a zero-security zone. We didn’t say that there’s a counterterrorism task force that we’re just going to put to the side,” said Max Rose, who recently served as a pandemic response coordinator for Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III. “It became the responsibility of every agency, every state, every city. … This can and should be no different.”

The United States cannot forget the enormity of the catastrophe caused by the virus and go back to business as usual, he said Aug. 17 during the National Defense Industrial Association’s Chemical, Biological Radiological and Nuclear Defense Conference and Exhibition in Baltimore.

“We have to put ourselves on a footing commensurate with what we did right after 9/11,” said Rose, who stepped down from his position in July.

That will require not just extensive monitoring and sequencing of new diseases, but bolstering supply chains, establishing stockpiles of critical personal protective equipment, and expanding the nation’s capacity to produce vaccines, he said.

The United States prepares for numerous natural disasters, such as fires or tornados, he noted. But before COVID-19 hit, organizations didn't practice measures such as teleworking, for example, to test their capabilities in case there was a pandemic, Rose said.

“Not one person in this room ever did a pandemic drill,” he told members of industry. “That’s not an indictment on this room — that’s an indictment of our absence of preparedness as a nation and as a world. But we have got to figure out how to very quickly go from zero to 100.”

The country needs to “close the gap” between detection of an emerging contagion, the initial non-pharmacological response and pharmacological innovation, Rose said. It must also be ready to tackle the challenges of mass manufacturing and allow for excess industrial capacity.

“That’s a supply chain issue,” he said. “Did we ever as a nation before this crisis … take pride in factories that were out there in the open not doing anything? No, of course not. We would have thought that that was wasteful. Well, that very well might be what we need now.”

Officials should consider standing up vaccine factories that the federal government pays for in case there is another pandemic, Rose said. Preparedness would mean that the nation is better equipped to meet unpredictable, extraordinary demand for items such as masks, gloves or testing supplies, he added.

“That is a foundationally different system than what we have today ... that is based strictly on efficiency," he said. “That is not good for security. Plain and simple.”

The federal government needs to fund the construction of lots of warehouses where it can stockpile critical medical supplies, he suggested. If it doesn’t prepare itself and fill facilities with the supplies needed for future crises, “then we should not be pissed off when we don’t have masks during a moment of heightened demand, when we don’t have anything at a moment of heightened demand," Rose said.

Companies are constantly optimizing their operations to reduce costs, and they cannot be faulted for that, he said. It is the public sector’s responsibility to put in place a long-term sustainable solution, Rose added.

For the next year or two, the United States will be as well-prepared for a pandemic than at any moment in human history, he said. However, Rose is worried about what the situation might be in 2026 and beyond.

“Most likely, we go back to the old way of thinking unless we adopt the post-9/11 mindset,” he said. “We can’t let this happen again. We have the capabilities to prevent it from happening again.”

Topics: Chem Bio Protection, Defense Department

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