Another view: Pivotal Step to #EndPandemics
By Brett Giroir, M.D.
The social media hashtag #EndPandemics tied to this week’s 6th George H.W. Bush China-U.S. Relations Conference in Houston is more than a memorable phrase. It is indeed a specific objective — one that could be accomplished within the next decade, if there is bold and focused American leadership accompanied by strong international cooperation and transparent sharing of data.
The conference, focusing specifically on China and U.S. leadership in global public health, is a major step. Rather than a “science meeting,” this unique assembly of 400 senior government officials, international business moguls, public health leaders and renowned scientists and engineers was designed to develop and implement holistic approaches across disciplines, professions and cultural barriers. This approach will provide humanity our best hope for avoiding the decimation of national populations, economies and even entire cultures that could result from the next pandemic or bioterrorist attack. Holistic approaches include early warning and prediction, smart device-based technologies for diagnosis and tracking, disease protection from whole foods, new broad-based vaccines like a one-time universal flu shot and even corporate social responsibility programs and well-equipped disease detective “swat teams” that deploy and diffuse outbreaks at their source.
Last year in Texas, it became clear that Ebola was not simply an African problem; it is a world problem that came frightfully close to a widespread outbreak in north Texas. In 2009, H1N1 influenza infected 25 percent of the world’s population; but fortunately, and not because of any human intervention, the world was “lucky” to only experience 284,000 deaths, and not 100 million as in 1918.
What will be the next challenge? Will it be a known disease like Ebola or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or perhaps one that is now only carried in a bat and waiting to escape into its mammalian human relatives? Will it be a genetically altered airborne microbe weapon concocted by terrorists or an enemy nation?
Texas — and greater Houston in particular — is the ideal location to host this unprecedented global health conference, as Houston is home to the largest medical center in the world that serves as the epicenter for public-private partnership solutions, and boasts the National School of Tropical Medicine.
A prime example of Texas leadership is the new national Pandemic Influenza Vaccine Facility in Bryan-College Station, which is the cornerstone for the Texas A&M Center for Innovation in Advanced Development and Manufacturing. When fully operational in just a few years, the program will be responsible for delivering the first 50 million doses of vaccine — in just four months — to protect the nation against pandemic flu. This collaboration of academic, commercial and government stakeholders is serving as the model for how to #EndPandemics.
Complementing the public health preparedness and response infrastructure within the Lone Star State, many Texas experts served in 2014 on the Texas Task Force on Infectious Disease Preparedness and Response, which I was privileged to lead. Assembled during the Texas Ebola outbreak, the group provided leadership and long-term recommendations to strengthen our readiness for future public health threats. Currently, a Texas Senate bill under consideration by the Legislature aims to continue this task force and its important work of state preparedness.
In a similar vein, the U.S.-China collaboration will also yield tangible steps for developing innovative and effective worldwide protocols for identifying, tracking, preventing, treating and containing infectious disease outbreaks. In today’s globally connected society, an epidemic anywhere will soon become a threat everywhere. Infectious diseases respect no national boundaries, political parties or ethnic origins. To #EndPandemics requires novel approaches and partnerships that began this week in Houston.
Giroir is a physician scientist and chief executive officer of the Texas A&M Health Science Center and former director of the Defense Sciences Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
This op-ed originally appeared in Houston Chronicle.