Treating a virus threat like terrorism

Coronavirus Daily
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Treating a virus threat like terrorism

After the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. government "tracked every single phone call coming into the U.S., a pretty revolutionary piece of surveillance," according to Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit working to prevent viral outbreaks around the world.

"Why aren't we doing that with pandemics?" he said Thursday at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum.

He wasn't really suggesting monitoring telephone calls, but he was making a point. Why aren't viruses viewed as national security threats and tracked with the same intensity that governments use to monitor terrorist activity?

It's a good question, and one of the answers might be a lack of early-warning systems. Daszak and two other top virus hunters who appeared on a panel with him said that nations need to invest in systems that would detect emerging viruses before they infect people and then spread.

"We haven't had the kind of early-warning system and investment in this kind of early-warning system that we've needed from the very beginning," said Anne Rimoin, a professor or epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. "We really need to be able to invest in protecting ourselves from viruses."

Viral outbreaks are "happening more frequently, they're spreading quicker, they're killing more people and they're crushing our economies," said Daszak. He estimated that there are 1.7 million unknown viruses in the world. It would cost over a $1 billion to identify 70% of them, but it would be money well spent, Daszak said.

Maybe the money should come from national security budgets.—Robert Langreth and Mark Schoifet

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