On Monday, February 1, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense (FD) practice convened a panel of health security and technology experts to discuss the effects of COVID-19 on US critical infrastructure and the implications for the future of national security. This event follows the release of FD’s October report, Effective Resilience and National Strategy: Lessons from the Pandemic and Requirements for Key Critical Infrastructures by Franklin D. Kramer, which proposes an “effective resilience” framework for bolstering the US capacity to prepare for and withstand major shocks and crises of the magnitude of a pandemic or major cyberattack.
Atlantic Council Senior Vice President and Director of the Scowcroft Center Barry Pavel kicked off the event, contextualizing the enduring challenge of COVID-19 within the broader spectrum of nonmilitary threats to US security, before turning to Atlantic Council Board Director and former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute. Ms. Lute posed a series of critical questions to frame the US government’s role in crises, inquiring about the purpose of government and describing its utility in “delivering threshold conditions of security, wellbeing, and justice for its citizens.” Ms. Lute further questioned how the United States builds resilience into its crisis response. From her perspective, the answer is unity: within communities and across government agencies, the United States must build consensus around a common cause.
Applying Ms. Lute’s framing of the purpose of government to provide security and well-being, report author and Atlantic Council Board Director and Distinguished Fellow Franklin Kramer summarized his key findings on how the United States can build resilience into national strategy. Mr. Kramer outlined five recommendations for US health security: 1) undertake major research and development programs; 2) enhance public health, the first line of defense in pandemic prevention and response; 3) effectively use artificial intelligence (AI) to predict epidemiological trends and aid in response efforts; 4) organize a national pandemic plan; and 5) prepare US biodefense for bioterrorism threats. According to Mr. Kramer, avoiding a future COVID-19 scenario requires urgent action.
Mr. Kramer then joined a distinguished panel featuring: Peter Jacobson, Professor Emeritus of Health Law and Policy as well as Director of the Center of Health Law and Ethics at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health; Jaclyn Levy, Director of Science and Research Policy at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and Atlantic Council Millennium Fellow; Chris McGuire, Director of Research and Analysis at the National Security Commission on AI; and Dr. David Bray, Director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center. Forward Defense Deputy Director Clementine G. Starling moderated the discussion, which centered around not only the opportunities and challenges presented by the current pandemic, but also the implications for future public health crises.
The panel largely agreed with Mr. Kramer’s analysis that avoiding devastation from future shocks would require learning from and acting on the successes and failures of COVID-19. Mr. Jacobson and Ms. Levy agreed that the coronavirus pandemic revealed perennial problems in the public health apparatus. Referencing the poor funding for health security efforts, Mr. Jacobson stated that his own local health budget is based on 1992 dollars yet is expected to address twenty-first century health crises like the opioid epidemic and the coronavirus pandemic. Ms. Levy further explained that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” highlighting Mr. Kramer’s recommendations for increased public health research funding and a centralized testing strategy. Looking forward, Ms. Levy identified an opportunity to leverage the successful research and infrastructure developed in the current pandemic for future public health emergencies. As Ms. Levy looked forward, Dr. Bray looked back at the cautionary tale of past successes setting up future failure: the United States perceived the minimal upheaval caused by H1N1 and Ebola as indications that COVID-19 would not be grave. Today, the United States must treat coronavirus as “a dress rehearsal for the shocks that are going to come” and begin devising an early warning system for pandemics.
The panelists further characterized shocks such as COVID-19 as whole-of-society issues that require participation across government, industry, and the public. Dr. Bray identified a need for an ecosystem coordinating public-private partnerships and public literacy, and for individuals to feel involved in governance. Furthermore, Mr. Kramer expressed that the US government must build public trust through demonstrating positive results, with Mr. Jacobson adding that transparency was a necessary step towards public confidence in government messaging.
Throughout the conversation, speakers stressed that COVID-19 and equivalent health crises are not solely about health, but rather span various sectors. Mr. McGuire explained that, as biology becomes programmable, biotech and AI are increasingly interconnected. According to Mr. McGuire, the US government must approach biotech data as a “strategic asset,” integrating biodata and producing analytical infrastructure. Agreeing with Mr. McGuire’s analysis, Dr. Bray viewed the democratization of technology as a challenge and opportunity, compelling public involvement in data sharing as health surveillance becomes imperative. Similarly, Ms. Levy detailed the need for a whole-of-government bioterrorism framework that ramps up investment in global health surveillance. Delving into the cyber domain, Mr. Kramer addressed the intersection of health security and cybersecurity, calling for a governmental system to protect hospitals and researchers from cyberattacks.
Rounding out the discussion, Ms. Starling posed a question on how to respond to the next imaginable health crisis. Panelist answers ranged from creating momentum for a holistic response, to focusing on biotech as a national imperative, to funding state and local responses. However, despite varying solutions, all panelists agreed on the need to use the current pandemic as an impetus for determining the best path forward.
You can re-watch “Effective Resilience and National Strategy: Lessons from COVID-19 and Implications for the Biden Administration” here or below. For more information about the Atlantic Council’s Forward Defense practice or to read our latest reports, op-eds, and analyses, please visit the website here. You can also sign up for updates from Forward Defense to hear the latest trends, technologies, and military challenges shaping tomorrow.
Julia Siegel is an intern for Forward Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.