When discussing border security and enforcement, the conversations often focus on the smuggling of aliens, narcotics, firearms, currency and other contraband–and for good reason. These important topics require constant attention due to the threats posed to the nation and other countries by the smuggling that occurs both inbound and outbound at our land, air and marine borders.
In addition to these more commonly considered threats, other border security threats receive less attention, even though the impact on the nation could be more significant, if not catastrophic. The threat in question is a pandemic involving serious novel infectious disease or an intentional biological attack with a communicable pathogen.
Often the subject of entertaining movies or best-selling books, this global threat is real, and our national planning and preparedness may not be sufficient if this sleeping giant should awaken any time soon.
Public Health and Bioterrorism Threats
With no catastrophic pandemic occurring in recent memory, the threat may appear minimal compared to more pressing international issues, such as terrorism or nuclear proliferation. However, according to former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, co-chair of the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense, a global pandemic could kill more people than a nuclear war. He noted this most recently in a March 9 CNBC interview.
In the past 20 years, the expanding list of global health threats has grown to include Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, Marburg, Lassa, Zika and various influenzas such as H1N1, H3N2, H5N1, H5N6 and N7N9. Many of these public health threats were greeted with great interest that faded as quickly as the pathogens.
The question remains: Are these recent infectious diseases just warning shots for a much more serious public health threat with enormous social, economic and political cascading consequences not experienced in the United States since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic? It has been estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people died during the Spanish Flu–more than were killed during the same period in World War I. The Spanish Flu was able to rapidly travel around the world several times in a slower world limited to voyage by ship.
The Gates Foundation projected in The New York Times that a similar pandemic outbreak today could result in the deaths of 360 million people around the world, despite the availability of vaccines and antimicrobials. The evolution and expansion of antibiotic resistant pathogens only compounds this public health threat. In addition to the world population growth, the pace of urbanization, globalization, overuse of antibiotics and robust international air travel only expands the concern for the rapid spread of epidemics across regions and pandemics across the planet.
The next global health threat may not be naturally occurring–it could be an intentional bioterrorism attack. In a February 18 Business Insider op-ed timed to coincide with his speech at the recent Munich Security Conference, Bill Gates made the point that a fast-moving airborne pathogen could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year. And Lieberman noted in his CNBC interview that his great worry was that a group such as ISIS will develop a powerful synthetic flu and introduce it into our population.
Whether the next global health threat is another learning opportunity or a rapidly expanding pandemic from a novel virus with sustained transmission, it will require a whole-of-government response, with a strong border security component, which executes current strategies, plans and procedures.
But, will it be enough?
Read the complete story in the March/April 2017 edition of Homeland Security Today Magazine here.