On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) contacted China about media reports of a cluster of viral pneumonias in Wuhan, later attributed to a coronavirus, now named SARS-CoV-2. By January 30, 2020, scarcely a month later, WHO declared the virus to be a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)—the highest alarm the organization can sound. Thirty days more and the pandemic was well underway; the coronavirus had spread to more than seventy countries and territories on six continents, and there were roughly ninety thousand confirmed cases worldwide of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and could yet evolve in unanticipated ways, but one of its most important lessons is already clear: preparation and early execution are essential in detecting, containing, and rapidly responding to and mitigating the spread of potentially dangerous emerging infectious diseases. The ability to marshal early action depends on nations and global institutions being prepared for the worst-case scenario of a severe pandemic and ready to execute on that preparedness The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and could yet evolve in unanticipated ways, but one of its most important lessons is already clear: preparation and early execution are essential in detecting, containing, and rapidly responding to and mitigating the spread of potentially dangerous emerging infectious diseases. The ability to marshal early action depends on nations and global institutions being prepared for the worst-case scenario of a severe pandemic and ready to execute on that preparedness before that worst-case outcome is certain.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus and its devastating death toll and economic harm have revealed a failure of global and U.S. domestic preparedness and implementation, a lack of cooperation and coordination across nations, a breakdown of compliance with established norms and international agreements, and a patchwork of partial and mishandled responses. This pandemic has demonstrated the difficulty of responding effectively to emerging outbreaks in a context of growing geopolitical rivalry abroad and intense political partisanship at home.
Pandemic preparedness is a global public good. Infectious disease threats know no borders, and dangerous pathogens that circulate unabated anywhere are a risk everywhere. As the pandemic continues to unfold across the United States and world, the consequences of inadequate preparation and implementation are abundantly clear. Despite decades of various commissions highlighting the threat of global pandemics and international planning for their inevitability, neither the United States nor the broader international system were ready to execute those plans and respond to a severe pandemic. The result is the worst global catastrophe since World War II.
The lessons of this pandemic could go unheeded once life returns to a semblance of normalcy and COVID-19 ceases to menace nations around the globe. The United States and the world risk repeating many of the same mistakes that exacerbated this crisis, most prominently the failure to prioritize global health security, to invest in the essential domestic and international institutions and infrastructure required to achieve it, and to act quickly in executing a coherent response at both the national and the global level.
The goal of this report is to curtail that possibility by identifying what went wrong in the early national and international responses to the coronavirus pandemic and by providing a road map for the United States and the multilateral system to better prepare and execute in future waves of the current pandemic and when the next pandemic threat inevitably emerges. This report endeavors to preempt the next global health challenge before it becomes a disaster.
A Rapid Spread, a Grim Toll, and an Economic Disaster
On January 23, 2020, China’s government began to undertake drastic measures against the coronavirus, imposing a lockdown on Wuhan, a city of ten million people, aggressively testing, and forcibly rounding up potential carriers in makeshift quarantine centers.1 In the subsequent days and weeks, the Chinese government extended containment to most of the country, sealing off cities and villages and mobilizing tens of thousands of health workers to contain and treat the disease. By the time those interventions began, however, the disease had already spread well beyond the country’s borders.
SARS-CoV-2 is a highly transmissible emerging infectious disease for which no highly effective treatments or vaccines currently exist and against which people have no preexisting immunity. Some nations have been successful so far in containing its spread through public health measures such as testing, contact tracing, and isolation of confirmed and suspected cases. Those nations have managed to keep the number of cases and deaths within their territories low.
More than one hundred countries implemented either a full or a partial shutdown in an effort to contain the spread of the virus and reduce pressure on their health systems. Although these measures to enforce physical distancing slowed the pace of infection, the societal and economic consequences in many nations have been grim. The supply chain for personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, and medical equipment such as oxygen treatment equipment and ventilators remains under immense pressure to meet global demand.
If international cooperation in response to COVID-19 has been occurring at the top levels of government, evidence of it has been scant, though technical areas such as data sharing have witnessed some notable successes. Countries have mostly gone their own ways, closing borders and often hoarding medical equipment. More than a dozen nations are competing in a biotechnology arms race to find a vaccine. A proposed international arrangement to ensure timely equitable access to the products of that biomedical innovation has yet to attract the necessary support from many vaccine-manufacturing nations, and many governments are now racing to cut deals with pharmaceutical firms and secure their own supplies.
As of August 31, 2020, the pandemic had infected at least twenty-five million people worldwide and killed at least 850,000 (both likely gross undercounts), including at least six million reported cases and 183,000 deaths in the United States. Meanwhile, the world economy had collapsed into a slump rivaling or surpassing the Great Depression, with unemployment rates averaging 8.4 percent in high-income economies. In the second quarter of 2020, the U.S gross domestic product (GDP) fell 9.5 percent, the largest quarterly decline in the nation’s history.2
Already in May 2020, the Asia Development Bank estimated that the pandemic would cost the world $5.8 to 8.8 trillion, reducing global GDP in 2020 by 6.4 to 9.7 percent. The ultimate financial cost could be far higher.3
The United States is among the countries most affected by the coronavirus, with about 24 percent of global cases (as of August 31) but just 4 percent of the world’s population. While many countries in Europe and Asia succeeded in driving down the rate of transmission in spring 2020, the United States experienced new spikes in infections in the summer because the absence of a national strategy left it to individual U.S. states to go their own way on reopening their economies. In the hardest-hit areas, U.S. hospitals with limited spare beds and intensive care unit capacity have struggled to accommodate the surge in COVID-19 patients. Resource-starved local and state public health departments have been unable to keep up with the staggering demand for case identification, contract tracing, and isolation required to contain the coronavirus’s spread.
A Failure to Heed Warnings
- Institute of Medicine, Microbial Threats to Health (1992)
- National Intelligence Estimate, The Global Infectious Disease Threat and Its Implications ...
This failing was not for any lack of warning of the dangers of pandemics. Indeed, many had sounded the alarm over the years. For nearly three decades, countless epidemiologists, public health specialists, intelligence community professionals, national security officials, and think tank experts have underscored the inevitability of a global pandemic of an emerging infectious disease. Starting with the Bill Clinton administration, successive administrations, including the current one, have included pandemic preparedness and response in their national security strategies. The U.S. government, foreign counterparts, and international agencies commissioned multiple scenarios and tabletop exercises that anticipated with uncanny accuracy the trajectory that a major outbreak could take, the complex national and global challenges it would create, and the glaring gaps and limitations in national and international capacity it would reveal.
The global health security community was almost uniformly in agreement that the most significant natural threat to population health and global security would be a respiratory virus—either a novel strain of influenza or a coronavirus that jumped from animals to humans.4 Yet, for all this foresight and planning, national and international institutions alike have failed to rise to the occasion.