Pandemic Preparedness: Learning from Experience

By Stephen B. Taylor

On February 7, 2017, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, gave the keynote speech at the ASM Biothreats 2017 conference. Dr. Fauci has spent over 35 years advocating infectious disease preparedness with United States policymakers. In his speech, Dr. Fauci discussed the substantial progress made in this arena since the 1980s when he first entered the field during the Reagan administration. At the time, there was a lack of appreciation in the U.S. about the potential of the newly emergent Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  Though Fauci tried to publish some disturbing initial findings about the nascent threat, the medical community rebuffed him for being an alarmist.  As the 1980s progressed, HIV/AIDS spread to epidemic proportions in the U.S.

During George H.W. Bush’s presidency, Dr. Fauci began making headway with national health and policy leaders to take seriously the threat of emerging infectious diseases. President Bush visited Dr. Fauci at NIH for a personal tutorial on HIV and took time to visit with HIV/AIDS patients. After President Bush received Dr. Fauci’s expert counsel and made a personal connection with the HIV/AIDS crisis, public health resources directed at the epidemic increased dramatically.

From the Clinton years onward, Dr. Fauci maintained his connection to lawmakers and executive leadership.  When infectious disease emergencies like West Nile Virus and antibiotic resistance came to a head during the Clinton years, politicians had a stronger relationship with the National Institutes of Health and funding came more quickly.

During George W. Bush’s term, the United States experienced the “double whammy” of 9/11 and Amerithrax.  This was a watershed moment for infectious diseases. For the first time since the early 20th century, it became widely apparent that infectious disease outbreaks posed a major threat to U.S. public health and security.  As the U.S government turned its attention and resources toward developing countermeasures against a bioterror attack, Dr. Fauci urged Washington leaders not to lose sight of the threat posed by natural outbreaks. When the H5N1 bird flu hit in the latter half of Bush’s presidency, the Bush administration worked closely with experts in health security to affect a paradigm shift: instead of reacting to outbreaks as they happen, the U.S. should expend more resources on preparing for future ones.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, emerging and re-emerging infectious disease outbreaks came in rapid succession: the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014, and Zika in 2015.  In close conjunction with experts like Dr. Fauci however, policy-makers have learned important lessons about preparedness, surveillance, capacity building, and coordination in preparation for the next major outbreak. Indeed, even before Inauguration Day this year, the Trump transition team invited Dr. Fauci to the White House for a disaster-response exercise.  As the world grows more interconnected and its climate changes, the threat of emerging infectious diseases looms larger.  U.S. leaders should continue to heed the advice of subject matter experts like Dr. Fauci and work closely with health and defense institutions to prepare for the future.


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