Via Vox.com, Julia Belluz interviews Ron Klain: Ebola czar — "This thing isn't over yet." And the next pandemic could be even worse. Excerpt:
Julia Belluz: You did not come from a medical background when you were suddenly at the helm of the White House’s response to this global epidemic. As a health outsider, what did you find most surprising?
Ron Klain: The most surprising and disappointing thing is the lack of global infrastructure to deal with this sort of thing. People have some sense, maybe from the movies, that in the event you have an outbreak there are some pre-existing global disease fighters that drop in with parachutes and helicopters and go on the attack. And there just isn’t.
The WHO [World Health Organization] clearly admitted they missed the boat on this. President Obama had to make the hard and bold decision to get the military into Liberia to build infrastructure, do training, build Ebola treatment units. Our allies — the UK in Sierra Leone and France in Guinea — had to help.
That’s not really a scalable or sustainable strategy for dealing with epidemics like this in the future. It can’t be our responsibility in the US to do this every time.
Julia Belluz: Having seen that we are ill-prepared to cope with pandemics, what most worries you about the future outbreaks we will surely have?
Ron Klain: As horrible as Ebola was — and still is — you can imagine the next scenario being much worse. These three countries [Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea] are relatively small in population. The largest city in any of the three is Conakry with a population of about 1 million.
If you had this scenario in one of the world’s largest cities, with 20 or 30 million people, it would be very different. Ebola is also very hard to transmit. It’s not airborne. You can imagine an epidemic of a highly deadly flu where the disease would be transmitted much more quickly.
The next epidemic could break out in a country where US troops wouldn’t be welcome. Liberia is a country that we have a great relationship with — our troops were welcomed as heroes in Liberia. But what if the next outbreak like this is in Pakistan or in Indonesia — or pick any other country — where sending in the 101st airborne is not an option? We need a global squad, an international unit, that can do what the US and the British military did in this case.
So it’s hard to know what the next threat like this we will face could be, but it could be in a place where it’s much harder to fight the disease, with a higher rapidity of transmission, and a much lower ability to detect and isolate it.
Julia Belluz: Do you see any action on the horizon to suggest that we are learning that lesson?
Ron Klain: At the last G7 meeting last October, the Germans put forward an idea for what was called a "White Helmet Battalion." This would be a collection of troops from various G7 countries that would come in as rapidly deployed medics. It was kicked around, but not resolved.
It’s something I’m hoping the G7 will take up in June when they meet again. With globalization, the ability of a disease to spread quickly is higher and the world needs to respond quickly to get epidemics under control.