2012 investigation of Ebola virus in Uganda. Image from cdc.gov

“What we are talking about is making the world safer and more secure by strengthening out ability as an international community to prevent, detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.”

This great thought was verbalized at a press conference, on February 12, concerning the launch of the Global Health Security Agenda. GHS Agenda is the effort of a conglomeration of organizations, branches of the UN, and 26 countries working for global health, spearheaded by the U.S. government. Only it was Laura Holgate who was introducing the press briefing on the new effort to help the world get healthier; as in Laura Holgate Senior Director, for Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism and Threat Reduction at the National Security Council. The reason she is the one making the introduction could cause the GHS Agenda to succeed or fail.

Director of Global Health Policy Center, J. Stephen Morrison points out that this new effort “builds on multiple prior health security efforts, e.g. the CDC’s Laboratory Response Network (launched in 1999), the Global Health Security Initiative (2001) and the G-8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction (2002).”  The U.S. has a smaller example of the GHS Agenda in Afghanistan called the Disease Early Warning System, but now they are trying to go global. WHO has a multi-branch Global Early Warning System begun in 2005 that is supposed to fulfill that need. So why is the U.S. spearheading yet another attempt?

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention explained the GHS Agenda was initiated by the reality that only 20% of the 194 members of the World Health Organization have satisfied the legally binding International Health Regulations of 2005.

“at the same time, we’ll continue to work to prevent terrorists from developing, acquiring  or using biological agents for harm.” -John Kerry, Kathleen Sebelius, and Lisa Monaco

Another explanation was offered by Secretary of State John Kerry, Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of Health and Human Services, and Lisa Monaco, assistant to the President for homeland security and counter terrorism, in an article they wrote for CNN entitled “Why global health security is a national priority.” It was an excellent piece of smooth rhetoric with one line explaining that “at the same time, we’ll continue to work to prevent terrorists from developing, acquiring  or using biological agents for harm.” This explains why most of the leading positions in GHS Agenda are security or defense related. It also explains why Tom Frieden, director of CDC, announced that “In 2014, working in partnership with the Department of Defense, we’ll be committing $40 million to 10 additional countries to make this kind of initial rapid progress toward global health security.”

The week before the GHS Agenda was announced the government put another $20 million into the development of a drug to protect the public from a bioterrorism attack of the deadly bacterial infections of melioidosis and glanders.

The last successful bioterrorist act against U.S. media and government, in 2001, was the letters laced with anthrax and it turned out vice-president Dick Chaney and his staff were taking preventative antibiotics weeks before five people died of it. It is comforting to know that this time the government is putting money down to help all of us, but will the rest of the world see it that way? Especially when the last time diverse U.S. agencies partnered with health work was the CIA’s Hepatitis B vaccination program in Abbottabad, Pakistan in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. According to the analysis by Scientific American journal’s analysis this trick to identify children with Bin Laden’s DNA caused global health efforts to be set behind by decades, building global distrust of western medical efforts.

Morrison claims the GHS Agenda “raises the bar for using U.S. diplomacy to advance health security; getting Margaret Chan, the Chinese, Russians, Saudis and Indians initially on board was no small achievement.”

Using a global health efforts to counter bioterrorism is certainly innovative

Andrew Weber, assistant Secretary of defense for nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Program explains that  “The global threat (of disease outbreaks) requires the Department of Defense to innovate.” Using a global health efforts to counter bioterrorism is certainly innovative and the government has put money, effort, and its highest officials behind GHS Agenda enabling it to go further than any other similar attempt, but also crippling it with questions of alternative motives in the eyes of the world.