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The Ticking Timeline

Last week, galvanized by the Ebola epidemic, 194 Member States of the World Health Assembly quietly, but unanimously, agreed to provide support for West African, Central African and other at-risk states to achieve the capacity they need to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats by 2019. One of the boldest commitments of this year’s World Health Assembly, this agreement was made away from the limelight and has received little attention from the press. While deadlines for preparedness have come and gone since the World Health Organization (WHO) International Health Regulations (IHR) were revised in 2005, last week’s commitment is the first of its kind to challenge all countries to step up to assist one another to achieve global health security, and we must answer this call swiftly — before the next epidemic threat costs thousands of lives and billions in economic loss.

WHO estimates that approximately 70 percent of all countries are still not prepared for threats like Ebola. Even more stunning, many countries do not even know the extent of the prevention, detection and/or response gaps they face or how to track their trajectory towards achieving the capability to defend against biological threats of any origin. Animated by the missed 2012 deadline to achieve the capacity required by the WHO IHR, the United States, the WHO and partners from around the world launched the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) in February, 2014 because we are only as safe and secure from biological threats as the most vulnerable country among us. Last September, President Obama convened 44 countries and 6 international organizations to highlight concrete, measurable commitments to reach the all of the specific GHSA targets to accelerate implementation of the WHO requirements, and he called on all countries to help one another in this fight — starting in West Africa. Then, in November in Brisbane, G-20 Leaders called for the announcement of a timeframe to accelerate action during this year’s World Health Assembly to fill the massive global gap with tangible actions and meaningful outcomes. 

The fact that 194 Member States have now agreed on such a timeframe for providing assistance to the world’s at-risk countries provides hope for a future safe and secure from infectious disease threats — the essential vision of the Global Health Security Agenda. But we must now move swiftly to implement this commitment, and we must refrain from business as usual in how we go about delivering our assistance. This means we will need to work together to synchronize our efforts, moving beyond our national and sectoral silos. We will need effective partnership with all nations to develop tailored plans of action to achieve the common targets of the Global Health Security Agenda. To achieve this goal will also require completing the vital tasks of mapping the gaps, pairing resources to needs, and developing core partnerships with the most at-risk countries. Together we can work effectively not only with host countries and other governments, but also with non-governmental stakeholders. And we need to move beyond self-reporting for measurement and evaluation to invite external, expert review. And, above all, we must act now.

For our part, the United States has committed to partnering with at least 30 countries over five years to achieve all of the Agenda’s targets. And this year at the G-7 Leaders Summit in Schloss Elmau, President Obama is asking other G-7 Leaders to make a commitment to double that number so that the most vulnerable countries will finally have in place the needed capability to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to epidemic threats. 

This is not an Agenda that can be kicked down the road. As the Ebola epidemic — and before it, the crises caused by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, anthrax attacks and avian influenza — has shown us, we can neither prevent epidemics nor protect ourselves unless all of us act, swiftly and in concert. To prevent the next outbreak from becoming an epidemic, all countries must have capacity and a plan to get there. Please join us in making the vision showed at the Assembly a reality.

Beth Cameron is the Director for Countering Biological Threats at the National Security Council.