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Going viral at the Pentagon

In pandemic’s wake, Defense Department’s role in similar crises could grow

A new COVID-19  testing site, operated by the Maryland National Guard, in the parking lot outside FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on March 31.
A new COVID-19 testing site, operated by the Maryland National Guard, in the parking lot outside FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on March 31. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Civilians in the medical and public health communities, not the U.S. military, are always expected to lead the fight against disease.

But in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon’s role in waging this different kind of war could grow, experts say. 

To many lawmakers, the Defense Department is an attractive place to fund medical programs, partly because the defense budget is so large and enjoys support from both political parties, especially Republicans. 

[US military poised for post-pandemic shift]

That is why proponents of medical research such as Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., have secured appropriations in recent years not just for programs in places such as the National Institutes of Health but also roughly $1 billion a year on average for Defense Department research labs looking into cures and treatments for cancers and other killers.   

Going forward, to prevent disease outbreaks, including those that could be caused by accidental release of biological agents from labs, the Defense Department would do well to expand a Cooperative Threat Reduction program that helps foreign governments adopt best practices in biosecurity, said Beth Cameron, a former National Security Council senior director for global health security and biodefense. 

Cameron compares this to the way the U.S. military has built partner capacity in the war on terrorism. 

Another candidate for beefed up funding is a Defense Department program that monitors worldwide health indicators for early warnings of disease outbreaks, said Cameron, who is now an expert on biological programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative think tank. 

Intelligence agencies will probably devote more money and people to tracking diseases, and gaming exercises involving national security agencies will take on new urgency, said Mathew Burrows, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.

“We will see increased focus on health as a part of security,” Burrows said.

For addressing a contagion once it has happened, the military is likely to institutionalize on a larger and more permanent basis its humanitarian-response capacities — its unique, global ability to provide logistics, transport and command and control during crises, experts said. 

Military labs, including the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Maryland, are developing and testing potential vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, and their role may only grow.

[Partial safety ban lifted at Army bio lab, lawmakers say]

Other, smaller Pentagon moves to bolster its role in fighting disease are almost certainly in the offing, experts said.

New hospital ships will be built. A plan to downsize the uniformed medical corps will likely be reversed.

At the White House, meanwhile, a National Security Council office overseeing health security issues will probably be restored, regardless of who is president next year, several analysts observed.

Cameron warned that if military involvement provokes resistance in populations in the United States or abroad, that could make it harder for public health efforts to succeed. 

She hopes not just that the military will play a larger role but that civilian health workers will be considered soldiers in this national security effort and be funded accordingly.

“We should fund global health security and biodefense the way that we fund other elements of national defense and counterterrorism,” Cameron said. 

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