As Americans grow increasingly concerned about Ebola both here and around the world, I’ve been speaking with respected doctors who have spent most of their lives working for our government.
The concern they have about the Ebola threat to the American people is very real.
They have spent their lives making sure America has the right systems and technologies in place to prevent potentially catastrophic medical events, such as hemorrhagic fevers.
These doctors are not alarmists; they are patriots who have dedicated most of their lives to making sure that our nation was adequately prepared for an event such as this.
As one physician told me, “This is a civilizational challenge, but I’m afraid our government is treating it as a political problem.”
These scientists are frustrated that our government has, in recent years, either cut or canceled programs that were specifically designed to effectively deal with such a threat. These include:
1. Not following through on President Bush’s Transformational Medical Technology Initiative (TMTI).
2. Canceling the Aeromedical Isolation Team (AIT) which was part of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID). This was a military medical “rapid response” team that had worldwide reach and specifically focused on the most infectious diseases and patients.
Dr. David Gangemi is a noted virologist who formerly worked on hemorrhagic viruses at USAMRIID’s BioSafety Level (BSL) 4 facility.
Referred to as “our friend in the box” in the book, "Hot Zone," he spent 53 days under quarantine in an isolation chamber out of fear that he had contracted the machupo virus, which gives Ebola-like symptoms.
Gangemi, who is now professor emeritus at Clemson University, is concerned that the “Ebola virus could mutate, making current vaccine efforts more complicated.”
Another former senior U.S. government doctor is even more concerned and expressed frustration that current doctors who he’s known and worked with for years seem to be reading from White House “talking points.”
Here’s what concerns respected scientists the most:
1. Ebola is a negative-stranded RNA virus – RNA viruses are especially prone to mutations;
2. Currently, most Ebola strains including Zaire and Sudan, only exhibit human-to-human transmission after fever appears. If the Ebola virus mutates to a form in which the infectious virus is produced before fever appears, the transmission rate would be elevated;
3. Another mutational event could result in the virus being excreted in the upper respiratory tract like influenza. If this happens, the transmission rate could get out of control;
4. With U.S. troops now being sent to Liberia to set up mobile hospital evacuation units and to teach containment protocols, a concern is the lack of effective drugs and vaccines to protect US troops in Liberia from unintentional encounters with the infected population. There’s a real need for adequate supplies of therapeutic antibodies and experimental antiviral drugs to quickly administer to exposed individuals;
5. Some concern is building over the apparent ease of transmission to health care workers;
6. Basic virus education, prevention, and containment workshops need to be more widely disseminated at the state level and to our troops; and
7. Point of care diagnostics need more attention – we need rapid and simple methods to quickly identify the virus before fever symptoms occur.
One thing is for sure, and that is that U.S. military doctors know how to save lives today and respond quickly.
Unfortunately, while their budgets have been drastically cut in recent years, the U.S. military is best prepared to deal with Ebola. They have a much better understanding of medical logistics and proper protocols to be taken when dealing with deadly biological threats.
For example, former senior DOD physicians have expressed concern whether or not local authorities have been using actual sealed containment suits and using separate, segregated chambers for both the cleaning-up phase and the suit-removal phase.
Here’s what needs to happen now:
1. Complete quarantine of the three countries in the Ebola “hot zone;”
2. Following travel to the Ebola hot zone, quarantine US Military medical personnel for 21-30 days;
3. Following the quarantine of U.S. military personnel, test for Ebola;
4. Incinerate all supplies and clothing – bring nothing back;
5. Give the U.S. military medical community everything it needs to lead and get the job done – that includes restoring funding for specific programs they had in place for events such as this;
6. Conduct military and civilian medical training exercises similar to the TOPOFF exercises conducted by the Department of Homeland Security following 9/11;
7. Accelerate development of RNAi silencing technology, which was designed to serve as an inhibitor for Ebola (i.e. many scientists see this as a “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI) for Ebola); and
8. Establish an Ebola Emergency Coordinating Council to be comprised of USAMRIID, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), the three Military Surgeons General, the Biomedical Advanced Research & Development Authority (BARDA), the CDC, and the FDA.
There has been way too much “stove piping” in the government and an Ebola Emergency Coordinating Council is needed now.
Furthermore, the FDA needs to be encouraged to use its “emergency use authorization” powers so that promising therapeutics for Ebola can be ready when needed.
The reason the states came together to form the federal government was to “provide for the common defense” of the American people. Our government needs a plan to protect the American people and it needs to lead now.
Van D. Hipp, Jr. is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Army. He is the author of the newly released book, "The New Terrorism: How to Fight It and Defeat It." All of the author's proceeds go to the National Guard Educational Foundation to fund scholarships for children of fallen Guardsmen. www.thenewterrorism.com Follow him on Twitter @VanHipp.