The Federal Government Needs a Military-Style Campaign Against the Coronavirus

A longtime infectious disease specialist says such campaigns are effective against these kinds of infectious diseases because the way viruses operate fits, conceptually. into a military model.

On Monday, Harvard University epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch predicted that within a year, 40% to 70% of the world’s population would get the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease that it causes. With a world population of 7.5 billion, that means 3 to 5 billion people globally would get the novel coronavirus, and COVID-19 would kill up to 60 to 100 million. This would make the new coronavirus the worst pandemic in history, surpassing even the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 that killed 50 million people.

More relevant to us, here in the United States, we would have up to 130 to 230 million cases of coronavirus, and up to 2.5 to 3.5 million people would die of COVID-19. These numbers are simply mind-boggling.

We obviously cannot stand by and allow this worst-case scenario to play out in America. For this reason, President Trump held a news conference Wednesday on the federal government’s response efforts, during which he named Vice President Mike Pence to lead the virus fight. But it’s unclear what level of anti-virus effort the Trump administration has in mind. President Trump said he would be happy to work with whatever level of anti-virus funding Congress deems appropriate.

As a global health professional, I have worked in the field for over 30 years, mostly in Africa. For the past 20 years, I have focused on infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and Ebola. We have learned the hard way that military-style campaigns are a very effective way to combat these kinds of infectious disease viruses, because the way viruses operate conceptually fits into a military model. These viruses are very aggressive; they threaten to invade and overwhelm our national and physical defense systems (our immune systems). To defend ourselves, we have to develop and deploy weapons with which to defeat the viruses.

With coronavirus, the best weapon would obviously be a vaccine, which is, unfortunately, more than a year away. So in the meantime, we have to fall back on other means of defense, such as border security, quarantines, social isolation, virus testing and treatment in isolation units. The risk of taking a low-key federal government approach, rather than aggressively waging war on the coronavirus at the earliest opportunity, is that it may spread much faster and much farther than we anticipate, overwhelming our health systems and our communities. We need strong and unified national leadership, not partisanship. We need to ensure that we go to war on the coronavirus, working together closely as a nation.

Wartime footing against the coronavirus begins with these steps: At a minimum, Congress should pass the initial proposed $2.5 billion emergency funding measure to help with the response, and the Health and Human Services Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should continue to work with state health departments and private hospital and health systems to update pandemic plans to cover coronavirus. Within days, Vice President Pence should elaborate his detailed plans for leadership of the unified federal response effort, combining the powers of Congress with the expertise of federal agencies with the relevant scientific expertise, such as the CDC.

Outside of government, our U.S. manufacturing base needs to rapidly begin to produce and distribute protective gear and virus test kits to our health care workforce. The current supply of protective apparel for health care workers depends on factories in China that are shut down due to the virus. Even when those factories re-open, they will have to re-supply China first, before they can respond to demand from the United States.

There are four critical lines of defense that we must establish in going to war on the coronavirus:

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