COVID-19 AND BIO-DEFENCE: Can we prepare better? – [PART -I]

-by Shivam Mishra & Aman Vijay Bhatt

In the first part of this bipartite blog series, the authors take a gestalt perspective of the worldwide instances of unprepared biodefense that exposed during this virus spread. The authors discuss the compelling concern of the virus spread resulting in inhumane treatment for the patient and how this could be mitigated if the nations prepared better with the more vigilant approach towards the biodefense. 

INTRODUCTION

Recently originated novel coronavirus has engulfed the entire world. Where every nation is under the state-imposed lockdown causing irreparable damages to the human race. However, this certainly is not the first modern pandemic world witnessing. As in the past, we have witnessed Spanish flu (1918-20), Asian flu (1957), SRPS-CoV (2002), H1N1 flu (2009), and Ebola virus (2014-16). Fortunately, the geostrategic elevations of these viruses were not up to the level of coronavirus. As of now, Covid-19 has spread across more than 200 countries with infected patients are now more than 5.2 million and deaths more than 3 lakhs (as on 22nd May). Conspicuously, the world was not equipped to defend itself from such enormity and the results are reiterating the same. But, the question arises, But, the pertinent question that arises is whether we can prepare better than for such an enormity in future, if yes, how? Can a more structured plan abate the harm world today is suffering?

 The Authors in this note find the answer in affirmative. The Authors claim a better approach towards biodefense by the nations could lower if not captured the effect of COVID-19. The Authors have taken a dichotomy approach wherein the first part they scrutinized the global instances of improper biodefense mechanism. This further followed by the analysis of the biodefense mechanism in the domestic context of India.

BIO-DEFENCE– GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE

Biodefense ensures the preparation of the nation to counter biological threats, preparation to respond in event of bio incidents and to recover from such incidents. It consists of a proper mechanism that includes biosurveillance, threat monitoring, awareness regarding the biological incidents effect and enhancement of medical countermeasures, public health infrastructure, strengthening of testing laborites, etc. While the national biodefense strategy stipulates a framework to coordinate all these diverse activities of different agencies.

Nations have failed to learn any substantial lesson despite the history of pandemics around the globe. In fact, it would not be wrong to argue that their response in this crisis was founded on ‘trial and error’ methodology.  The failure of Nations Biodefense mechanism and its functioning has exposed miserably as they failed to tackle the spreading of the virus. At the moment the global communities even don’t know the originating cause of the virus.

Failure of China to detect the actual nature of the virus, failure to anticipate the harm virus could pose, hosting the Lunar New Year party even when the threat of virus already spread, showing their preparedness. The same goes for the United Kingdom which criticized by its scientists due to its late response in the wake of the virus and for its stagnant policy of testing. Consequently, the virus gripped the whole nation including the prime minister. Italy, one of the most affected countries also failed to warn its people as several virus-infected patients were diagnosed for seasonal flu. Mild testing was operated across the county because they didn’t have adequate test kits. This resulted in the rapid growth of the patients as after reporting its first official case on 20th February the number of patients in Italy surpassed China’s number of patients within a month. Their preparedness can also be cognized with the fact that at the later stage hospitals were forced to choose who should get lifesaving breath machines and who does not due to inadequacy of medical supplies. It is claimed that the US has the most strengthen biodefense in the world with the adoption of the national bio-defence strategy in 2018 by president Trump.  Therefore, it’s become important to have a US-centric discussion to expose the insufficient preparation of nations from a biodefense perspective.

The US biodefense evolvement is heavily influenced by persistent endeavours of Mr Robert Kadlec, former US air force colonel who later posted at several positions in White House, Pentagon, and Senate. However, a profound analysis shows that it was not his endeavour instead it was the immediate sufferings from infectious disease which cause the development of the so-called world’s best biodefense in the US. For example, Kadlec was persistently emphasizing from 1998 that the bio-defence of our country is very weak and we are very soon going to realize it. However, his research hardly made any impact on the policy decisions of the country. It was only the 2001 Anthrax attack that made the country think about the biodefense strategy. After the 2004 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak the then president George Bush issued a directive on how to contain and treat infectious disease. This further modified when after H1N1 influenza President Obama signed his own strategy. However, in 2015 the Bipartition commissioned led by Robert Kadlec found that even now the country’s biodefense is weak and vulnerable. A federal plan was made mandated for protection against contagious disease based on such recommendations by Obama. Furthermore, based on the same commission’s recommendations trump adopted the National Biodefense Strategy in September 2018. However, it was pointed out that the strategy still hasn’t been implemented and the confused response of the government at such time of crisis is demonstrating the same.

 For example, Biodefense was established to respond effectively and rapidly during such incidents, however, the government even failed to detect the virus and the harm it could pose, as the president kept comparing the virus with other seasonal flu, resulting in a wide range spread of the virus across the nation. Moreover, there was a great shortage of medical supplies and equipment. Several patients did not receive intensive care unit beds when they were severely ill. Doctors were forced to treat the patients without equipped with protective masks due to such shortages.  Also, when there were more than 50 cases already found several cases went untested due to shortages of the test kit. Eventually, it was a biodefense strategy that was called to fulfil all these shortages. In addition to this, while there is a provision under the strategy for the cabinet-level committee to assess the protection against the contagious disease, the committee still hasn’t met to discuss COVID-19. Instead, the Trump government appointed a coronavirus task force while there is no reference as such is outlined under the national biodefense strategy.

Though, the US signed a national biodefense strategy in 2018 to fight against bio incidents like Covid-19 in a very systematic manner it has been adopted in a much unsystematic way. Firstly, in the same year, the white house pandemic office was eliminated by the government which could assist greatly at this time of crisis. Furthermore, while it was mentioned in the bio-defence strategy that vice-president will be in charge of it the president eventually assigned this to himself, causing the desecration of the strategy at the initial stage itself further, the pandemic response coordination was given to health and human services. This according to Kenneth Bernard was a major error as it caused an absurd hierarchy because health secretary cannot push cabinet members to make policies thus, making it a sterile body. Also, no proper guidelines and rules were outlined under the strategy as there are 19 federal agencies, 50 political appointees, the government of all state, and three executive officers who share responsibilities under it by co-coordinating to each other. However, their roles and responsibilities haven’t been codified explicitly. The government accountability office also concluded that strategy has no apparent defined role for anyone or any proper guidelines as to how to proceed further for the protection against such infectious disease. It also has been subject to inadequate staff as objected by the Kadlec in March 2019 however; no steps were taken by the government. Consequently, it failed to perform at the time when it supposed to most. For example, the national Biodefense strategy was supposed to “ensure decision-making is informed by intelligence, forecasting, and risk assessment.” However, reality falls apart from this. In February Trump stated that we don’t need to worry from COVID-19 as we have tremendous control over it. It was immediately rebutted by Anthony Fauci an infectious disease expert who warned the citizens and stated that it can kill thousands of us. Such contradictory statements from the prominent personalities were enough to create confusion and panic among the citizens. The president also claims that the virus is more harmful to the older citizen and young people are not strongly affected. However, later it was reported that the virus is harmful to everyone. Proper Communication is a foremost aspect of a biodefense strategy that lacked here. Such communication gap also results in panic among the citizens who started running towards the market to carry essential commodities in more quantity certainly because there was not any proper handling by the government which in turn was the result of improper mechanism. Moreover, in the end, it is also noteworthy that it was the government itself criticized the strategy by saying that we inherited a broken, obsolete, and old system. It clearly shows that the suffering that the world today is enduring could be mitigated if states put biodefense at their priority like other sectors. As Asha George summarized It bothers me that people are going to get sick and die because we didn’t have plans and policies.”

While other countries are going through the tough phase due to Covid-19 the US is not the exception. In fact, it is the most affected country from the pandemic that too when it is said to have the best biodefense. The US response showing the global instances of biodefense preparation. As when the so-called most prepared country’s biodefense had such aperture and vulnerability which caused them suffering to this extent than other countries are bound to suffer from this pandemic with even more weak and fragile biodefense. However, it is also clear from the above discussion that it is not that countries could not prepare or couldn’t mitigate the impact of the pandemic. It is the non-implementation of proper bio-defence mechanism that is causing damages. Every country indeed has its biodefense mechanism but as GAO mentioned, “a strategy is only as good as its implementation”. Which lacked in all countries whether in the form of detection flaws in China, slow testing in the UK, insufficient medical preparation of Italy, and non-implementation of National strategy in the US.

The article is part of a two-part series.

Views are personal.

The image has been provided by the author.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shivam Mishra and Aman Vijay Bhatt are currently pursuing B.A. LLB. from Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow.

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