Here’s how to use tech to turn COVID-19 tragedy into “a global immune system”

It’s not too late for the United States – driven by the cutting-edge capabilities of its technology companies – to leverage the coronavirus tragedy into a historic opportunity. It would be built around scientifically novel but increasingly available means to prevent future pandemics through constructing a “global immune system.”

David Bray, the director of the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center, launched this year to help harness emerging technologies for good, has been pioneering the concept of a “Pandemic Prevention Board” as a significant first step. He likens the system to a previous time when the public “had to be convinced there was a need to install smoke detectors in large buildings linked to the fire department and automatic sprinkler systems to put out the fire.” 

The PPB initially would be an industry-driven answer to the now-obvious need, in the words of Bill Gates, for world leaders to “take what has been learned from this tragedy and invest in systems to prevent future outbreaks.” Gates, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, laid it out this way: “We need to save lives now while also improving the way we respond to outbreaks in general. The first point is more pressing, but the second has crucial long-term consequences.” 

The involvement of global governments would be essential, in the best case by planting seeds as early as the U.S.-hosted G7 summit on June 10, the Saudi-hosted G20 meeting on July 18 or at the United Nations General Assembly in September.  The dream outcome would be that public and private sectors worldwide would join hands urgently in a multi-faceted and coordinated effort that would produce a truly “new world order” out of our existing COVID-19 chaos.

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Don’t hold your breath for that kumbaya moment.

If this period has taught us anything, it is that our political leaders of 2020 mostly were ill-prepared for the virus. Their responses thus far haven’t been sufficiently cooperative, coordinated or proactive to meet the historic challenge. With China and the United States on a collision course that’s only likely to accelerate ahead of November’s US elections, an industry-initiated approach could kick-start some tension-reducing collaboration, also among political leaders.

The PPB would represent an alliance of technology companies focused on advancing solutions to safeguard against future low probability, high consequence pandemics – either naturally occurring or manually designed. Though experts are afraid to say this out loud and thus tempt fate, the COVID-19 impact has also impressed terrorist and extremist groups about the low-cost, high-impact destructive power of pathogens.

In Bray’s plan, the board’s flagship initiative would center around the concept of building an “immune system for the planet” that could detect a novel pathogen in the air, water or soil and rapidly sequence its DNA or RNA. This detection would then trigger rapid sequencing to fully characterize the pathogen. Once sequenced, high-performance computers would strive to identify both the three-dimensional protein surfaces of either the virus or bacteria and then search through an index of known molecular therapies that might be able to neutralize the pathogen.

The exponential reduction of the time required to take on a biothreat agent would save lives, property and national economies. With advances in biosensors, the Internet of Things and high-performance computing, it’s not so far-fetched to imagine real-time data collection to identify problems early and guide responses.

However, before getting too lost in the technologies that could make such a system work, it’s worth reflecting on the cruel lessons of history that should shift even the harshest critics of multilateral collaboration into a more collaborative spirit to advance global resilience against future waves of the COVID-19 virus and future pandemics.

It is essential we do this, finding a way to collaborate across nations and business sectors, while we still have the chance.

I’ve been rereading two books in the past days that richly relate history’s lessons, must-reading for today’s leaders.

Margaret Macmillan’s “Paris 1919” illustrates how the United States and its European partners failed the test after World War I; Dean Acheson’s “Present at the Creation” chronicles in great detail how, chastened by that experience, President Harry Truman and others used the post-World War II years to construct an international order that has delivered more than seven decades of growing prosperity and relative peace among major powers.

Paris 1919 “is a study of flawed decisions with terrible consequences, many of which haunt us to this day,” writes the late Richard Holbrooke in the book’s foreword. A single paragraph can’t settle the debate over President Woodrow Wilson’s degree of blame for that failure. He had plenty of accomplices among the U.S. and international leaders of those times. However, what followed is undeniable: nationalism, fascism, the Holocaust and World War II.      

“Present at the Creation” is about a post-war challenge, writes Acheson, that was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis. That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process. The wonder of it is how much was done.”   

That leaves today’s leaders to either watch the existing, rules-based global order – with all its flaws and dysfunctions – tear apart under the coronavirus strain. Or they can search for ways to finish Acheson’s half-complete job by creating something more inclusive, drawing upon public health as an indisputable common cause.

That could advance the concept of a world where the U.S. and China continue to compete fiercely in large number of other areas, but where at the same time they show they can collaborate as well. That would begin with collaborative efforts to keep their citizens healthy from future novel pathogens, but they at the same time could establish habits that serve other concerns ranging from climate and trade to avoiding a modern-age superpower war with devastating consequences.

“Washington’s sins of omission and Beijing’s sins of commission have conspired to sideline international institutions, helping frustrate their common goal of ending the pandemic,” write Thomas R. Pickering and Atman M. Trivedi this week in Foreign Affairs.

They point to previous times when the U.S. and China engaged in cooperative research and shared information to combat SARS and the avian flu in 2003, the swine flu in 2009 and the Ebola virus in 2014. During the Cold War, they write, Moscow and Washington “quietly collaborated on polio and smallpox vaccines.”

It may seem hopelessly naïve to expect an even more ambitious degree of global collaboration now, but history’s lesson is that the alternatives are horrifying.

This article originally appeared on

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.


A member of the staff from La Paz hospital reacts after two minutes of silence for health workers that died of COVID-19, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Madrid, Spain, May 14, 2020. REUTERS/Juan Medina TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

This week’s top reads focus on the need for global collaboration even amid a systemic US-China contest.

Frank W. Smith III looks at smallpox eradication by 1980 as an argument for “a concert of great powers” over a reliance on the World Health Organization.

IRI’s Daniel Twining and Patrick Quirk look at the need for the US and its democratic partners around the world to double-down in the contest of competing political systems with China and Russia.

Harvard’s Joseph Nye, also an Atlantic Council board member, studies the meaning of leadership in Project Syndicate and why he believes neither U.S. nor Chinese leaders are measuring up to the likes of Churchill or Mandela.

Keith Johnson and Robbie Gramer in Foreign Policy dissect the dangers of US-Chinese economic decoupling, and The Economist devotes its cover to the related threats of deglobalization.

This week’s must-read: David Ignatius in The Washington Post takes a disturbing look at the threat to US military primacy, documented in a new book by Christian Brose.

Hint: it has nothing to do with insufficient money or technology.



The US Naval War College’s Frank L. Smith III argues that history’s lesson of smallpox eradication is that it will take a “great power concert” to combat the global threat of coronavirus – not the World Health Organization.

He calls smallpox eradication by 1980 as “the greatest public health victory in history.” Though working through the WHO was helpful in the end, “the United States and Soviet Union provided most of the vaccine and global leadership,” argues Smith. “The positive returns on this investment – lives spared, agony avoided, costs saved – are huge.”

The WHO, he argues, is “too weak to do anything more than what powerful states tell it to do…Said another way: don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Read More →


Winning the Great Power Competition Post-Pandemic
Daniel Twining & Patrick Quirk / THE AMERICAN INTEREST

The International Republican Institute’s Dan Twining and Patrick Quirk lay out a compelling case for why, even as we battle coronavirus together with China, we “must lead the free world in shaping a more democratic global order.”

They argue that the Kremlin and the Chinese Communist Party have a common objective: “to weaken the West, divide America from allies, fill strategic vacuums in the wake of U.S. retreat, and make the world safe for autocracy, given the nature of their regimes.”

Their solution is that the US and its global partners “implement a grand national strategy focused on winning the competition for political systems… As leaders from the U.S. Founding Fathers to Franklin Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan have understood, the quality of liberty in the United States hinges on the progress of freedom in the world.” Read More →


An Abysmal Failure of Leadership

Joseph Nye, an Atlantic Council board member and one of the world’s leading intellects on international relations, defines leadership as “the ability to help people frame and achieve their goals,” even more crucial in our times.

He lists British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela as individuals who defined that sort of leadership. By contrast, he judges both US President Donald Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping harshly.

Whether you agree or not, Nye’s reflections on the difference between transactional and transformational leaders in Project Syndicate is worth reading, as is his book, “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.”

Nye says transformational leaders do not always succeed, as he argues was the case with former US President George W. Bush in his efforts to remake the Mideast. By contrast, Nye argues Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, combined his more transactional style with the skills to bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. Read More →


The Great Decoupling
Keith Johnson, Robbie Gramer / FOREIGN POLICY

Goodbye Globalization: The dangerous lure of self-sufficiency

Keith Johnson (my previous colleague at the Wall Street Journal) and Robbie Gramer (formerly of the Atlantic Council) deliver some of the richest reporting anywhere in Foreign Policy on “the threat of a great decoupling” between China and the United States.

“If the idea of wholesale decoupling is so jarring,” they write, “that’s because much of the last 80 years has been a deliberate, often US-led effort to deepen, not weaken, economic integration around the world.”Read More →

The Economist’s cover story this week warns, “A more nationalistic and self-sufficient era beckons. It won’t be richer – or safer… This inward-looking lurch will enfeeble the recovery, leave the economy vulnerable and spread geopolitical instability.” Read More →


Think we have military primacy over China? Think again.

This week’s must-reads are David Ignatius’s column on the erosion of US military primacy over China and a new book that captures what he calls “the most provocative critique of U.S. defense policy I’ve read in years.”

So, don’t just read the Ignatius column but also buy the book that inspired it by Christian Brose, the former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a close advisor to the late Senator John McCain.

The problem isn’t one of money or technological capability. Instead, Brose writes that “the United States got ambushed by the future” while bureaucratic inertia, entrenched interests and Congressional insistence has perpetuated legacy systems.

Writes Brose, “Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: We have lost almost every single time.” Read More →



Image: FILE PHOTO: Overview of the executive board meeting on update on the coronavirus outbreak at the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva, Switzerland, February 6, 2020. To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/WHO-TEDROS REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo