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The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Opening Remarks by National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice at the Global Health Security Agenda Conference

Washington, DC
Friday, September 26, 2014
As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Washington.  I know many of you have traveled a long way to be here, a fact which underscores the importance of our purpose. I’m proud to be joined today by America’s chief health officials, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell and the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,Tom Frieden, as well as many of my colleagues on President Obama’s national security team, including Secretary Kerry and Secretary Hagel.   

We launched the Global Health Security Agenda in February of this year because we recognized the danger that biological threats pose to the peace, security, and stability of our world.  At the time, the world did not yet realize that Ebola had already begun to claim the lives of villagers and spread through West Africa.  Since then, those first pernicious infections have spiraled into the most devastating outbreak of Ebola ever—thousands dead and the virus spreading at an exponential pace, overwhelming the resources of nations under-equipped to handle an epidemic of this scale; sick and dying parents cradling sick and dying children, hoping and waiting for help.  As one exhausted healthcare worker put it, “It’s despair on all fronts.” 

But, we also know that Ebola does not have to be a death sentence. With proper care and treatment, patients can make recoveries.  New infections can be prevented.  We’re honored to have with us today one such survivor—Dr. Melvin Korkor of Liberia.  We’re so happy to have you well and to have you with us, Doctor.  The gut-wrenching ravages of the current epidemic have proven beyond doubt that ours is a mission of great urgency and utmost importance—and not just for those nations suffering the immediate fallout. As President Obama made clear last week when he announced America’s substantial new commitments to help combat Ebola in West Africa, “If the outbreak is not stopped now, we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected, with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us.” 

The United States has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to fight this disease and dispatched 120 health experts from the CDC and USAID disaster specialists.  Now we’ve also deployed American troops to establish a command center in Liberia to support civilian efforts, create an air bridge to get doctors and medical supplies into Ebola-affected areas more quickly, and build new field hospitals and treatment units with more than a thousand new patient beds.  And, yesterday in New York, the world came together to accelerate all our efforts to contain and end this outbreak.  

In our open and interconnected world, we can only meet this kind of borderless threat with a unified global response.  The Ebola epidemic is a visceral reminder that outbreaks of disease can originate anywhere and spread everywhere.  Pathogens are equal-opportunity threats.  They can infect almost anyone and pass to large groups, sometimes without immediate detection.  As we are seeing in West Africa, epidemics can claim thousands of lives with alarming speed and cause billions of dollars of economic damage. 

Combating the threat of infectious diseases—whether naturally occurring, the result of laboratory accidents, or an act of bioterrorism—is a first-tier global concern, and it requires universal cooperation.  In just the past decade, we’ve encountered influenza pandemics, SARS, MERS, and now Ebola.  Over the same period, bacterial antibiotic resistance has continued to rise, meaning outbreaks are becoming more difficult to treat with standard drug protocols.  And, we are constantly vigilant against terrorists who would use biological agents to sow havoc. 

So, we need leaders around the world—not only health ministers and veterinary experts, but also Presidents and Prime Ministers and national security leaders—to work together to address this threat with the seriousness and urgency it deserves.  President Obama has repeatedly made clear that guarding against every kind of biological danger is a national security priority for the United States, and we are focused on these issues at the highest levels.  

Unfortunately, there are far too many nations, in every region of the world, that lack the capacity to prevent outbreaks of infectious diseases, or to respond when they do.  The hard truth is, fewer than 20 percent of the World Health Organization’s member states met the deadline for implementing international requirements that would prepare them to address pandemics or bioterrorism.  That’s dangerous.  And, that’s what we’re here to help change. 

We’ve got ministers and officials from more than 40 nations and senior leadership from major international organizations here today.  Each of your nations has stepped up with new, concrete commitments to help neutralize this threat. 

Finland and Indonesia have already brought this group together in Helsinki and Jakarta to develop commitments, and they have agreed to drive new contributions going forward.  The Republic of Korea will help other nations replicate its government-wide system for responding to biological crises.  Denmark, Kenya, and Canada are building an international model for national biosafety and security—to reduce the number of facilities where deadly pathogens are housed and to secure them.  We are working with South Africa, Thailand, and China to strengthen laboratory systems.  And, Georgia and Norway have agreed to help other countries establish real-time disease surveillance systems so that global health and security officials can be notified as soon as outbreaks happen. 

We also recognize the grave threat caused by antibiotic-resistant infections.  That’s why, last Thursday, the United States released a comprehensive national strategy to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and protect public health and national security.  And, we join the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Germany, and many others in working with the World Health Organization to develop a Global Action Plan against antimicrobial resistance.  

Our strategy to achieve a world secure against biothreats is straightforward.  First, prevent outbreaks by mitigating risks.  To do that, we need a strong laboratory system in every nation that can identify pathogens and facilitate treatments that provide the right drug, at the right dosage, at the right time.  We need protocols to protect those labs from terrorists intent on acquiring and using biological weapons.  And, immunizations should be routine and universal.

Second, we need to detect disease threats in real time, wherever they occur.  That means better biosurveillance systems and teams of specialists trained to trace the vector of a disease—to track down cases, determine how they occurred, and contain outbreaks before they become epidemics.

And third, we need to respond quickly to mitigate threats when they do occur.  Every nation should have strong emergency operations and systems to shepherd a unified response. 

Finally, we need to improve the way we mobilize assets and share resources among countries, including by building up the international institutions that lead on global health so they can quickly scale up responses. 

This is a fight we know how to win.  We have the tools and the capacity.  All we need is the political will to dedicate the necessary resources and to transform our vision into reality. 

Our mission today is to build on the good start we’ve made and redouble our efforts to ensure every nation is equipped to handle the worst.  We need to ask ourselves and our partners, how can we do more?  How can we work in more organized and efficient ways?  How will we measure our progress to make sure every nation has the capacity it needs? 

When we launched the Global Health Security Agenda, the United States pledged to assist at least 30 countries in achieving specific preparedness targets over the next 5 years.  How many more countries can we help, if we agree to work together and commit ourselves? 

The consequences of inaction are simply too great.  We cannot see the terrible images coming out of West Africa—people lying on the floors of hospitals or in the dirt outside, hoping for a bed, expecting to die—and fail to comprehend the urgency of our task.  We cannot hear the daily death toll tick rapidly skyward and fail to meet this tragedy head-on, even as we strive to prevent anything like this from happening again in the future. 

Today the danger is Ebola.  Tomorrow it could be another flu outbreak or a terrorist armed with a biological weapon.  Or, it could be an as-yet-unknown danger as microbes continue to adapt and cause new, more virulent diseases.  Whatever the threat, we must be prepared to confront it, together. 

The United States looks forward to partnering with all of you on this effort, and I want to thank you for supporting the Global Health Security Agenda.  Now, I’ll turn it over to Secretary Burwell.