Spot the next plague before it arrives. Predict the next swine flu outbreak before it makes headlines. Even detect a biological weapon before it's launched.
These are the goals of an ambitious initiative, launched Thursday, to build a worldwide surveillance system for infectious diseases.
Spearheaded by the U.S. government, the Global Health Security Agenda brings together 26 countries, the World Health Organization and several other international group. It aims to stop epidemics and bioterror agents before they spread.
Why is such an early warning system needed?
Because the U.S. and the world are at greater risk than ever before from biological organisms, says Dr. Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention.
"Viruses are just a plane ride away," he says. Bird flu could spread out of Asia. Ebola could emerge out of central Africa. Or drug-resistant Staphylococcus can sweep through hospital wards. "In today's globalized world, an outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere," Frieden says.
The Global Health Security Agenda is an attempt to make the world better prepared to confront those threats, he says. "We want to make sure we do everything we can to prevent emerging organisms from becoming outbreaks and outbreaks from becoming epidemics."
And the Obama administration seems to agree. It has placed several high-ranking officials on the project, not just from the medical side of the government, but also from the U.S. military and the Department of Homeland Security.
Three top officials wrote an opinion piece Thursday on CNN's website to make the case that biosecurity is a key element of national security.
In the piece, Secretary of State John Kerry; Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; and Obama's assistant on homeland security and counterterrorism, Lisa Monaco, argued that infectious diseases have the potential to cause massive economic damage and loss of life, similar to nuclear, chemical or cybersecurity attacks.
They offered two examples to illustrate their point: the economic loss from the H1N1 swine flu in Mexico in 2009 and lives lost from the SARS epidemic in Asia in 2002 and 2003.
The Obama administration has been concerned that many countries don't have the capacity to monitor potential biohazards and emerging diseases, said Laura Holgate, the senior director for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and threat reduction at the National Security Council.
"In 2012 we were really struck by the reality that 80 percent of the countries didn't meet the WHO deadline to be prepared for disease threats," Holgate said Thursday at a media briefing. In a world where viruses and other biological agents don't respect national borders, she said, the U.S. can't do this alone.
The Global Health Security Agenda plans to build a structure for biosurveillance so that, hopefully, other countries will be able to quickly detect the next major epidemic. The program also will set standards for national laboratories and outline the diagnostic tools needed to spot and contain modern diseases.
The participating countries have committed to creating emergency disease centers that can respond within two hours to an outbreak or other crisis. They also have agreed to link data from this global biosurveillance network through the WHO.
It's unclear how much the Global Health Security Agenda will cost the U.S. Other countries, such as China, are spending their own money on the parts they're implementing themselves.
But the Obama administration did say it's committing an extra $45 million to the CDC's 2015 budget to help low-income countries participate in the network. The money will mainly go to improve surveillance systems, update diagnostic equipment and train staff.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The U.S. is spearheading an international effort to set up a new early warning system for disease outbreaks and potentially dangerous pathogens. The network would track new diseases and, it's hoped, contain organisms that could be used in bio-warfare and terrorist attacks.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The Global Health Security agenda brings together 26 countries, the World Health Organization and several other international organizations to try to make the world safer from emerging diseases and biological threats. On the U.S. side, the initiative involves the military, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, and the CDC.
TOM FRIEDEN: We want to make sure that we do everything we can to prevent emerging organisms from becoming outbreaks, and outbreaks from becoming epidemics.
BEAUBIEN: Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says the U.S. and the world are at greater risk today than ever before from biological organisms. Bird flu can spread rapidly out of Asia. Ebola can emerge out of central Africa. Totally drug-resistant staph infections can sweep through hospital wards.
FRIEDEN: In today's globalized world, an outbreak anywhere is a threat everywhere. Viruses are only a plane ride away.
BEAUBIEN: This is not just being approached from a medical perspective. On a conference call with reporters, Laura Holgate from President Obama's National Security Council said emerging diseases are a real threat to the United States. Holgate is the senior director at the council for weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and threat reduction.
LAURA HOLGATE: The trade connectivity around the world means that disease threats spread faster than ever before. And this causes not only loss of life but also serious economic losses and, you know, ultimately, instability from a security perspective.
BEAUBIEN: She says the Obama administration has been concerned that many other countries don't have the capacity to monitor potential bio-hazards and emerging diseases.
HOLGATE: In 2012, we were really struck by the reality that 80 percent of the countries did not meet the World Health Organization deadline to be prepared for disease threats.
BEAUBIEN: In a world where viruses and other biological agents don't respect national borders, she says the U.S. can't do this alone. The new initiative establishes a framework so that hopefully all the partner countries will be able to quickly detect the next plague. It sets standards for national laboratories and outlines the diagnostic tools they need to confront the potential biohazards of the 21st century.
The countries also commit to creating Emergency Operation Centers that can respond within two hours to an outbreak or other crisis. And all the countries agree to link data from this new global bio-surveillance network through the World Health Organization.
The Obama administration is committing an additional $45 million to the CDC's budget to help low-income countries participate in the network. The money will mainly go to improve surveillance systems, update diagnostic equipment and train staff. Jason Beaubien, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.