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Forging of civil-military anvil against COVID-19 focus at GHSA

U.S. and Thai soldiers stand together during a medical exercise. U.S. Sailors worked side by side with Royal Thai Armed Forces medical professionals during Exercise Cobra Gold 2019 held in February 2019 in Ban Chen Krem, Kingdom of Thailand. The U.S. Sailors, with 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, practiced responding to different medical scenarios and utilizing a Role II medical facility with the Royal Thai Armed Forces. (Photo by Navy Lt. Matthew Kelly.)

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In a world increasingly forced to go virtual in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, a ray of hope for far-reaching change came Wednesday in the third annual defense side event on support for the objectives of the civilian-led 2020 Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA).

“Defense partnerships around the world are key,” noted Dr. David Smith, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for health readiness policy and oversight and the panel moderator. He was referring to cutting edge military collaboration ranging from combating weapons of mass destruction worldwide to the fight against COVID-19 amidst brush fires in Australia and malaria outbreaks in remote border regions in South East Asia.

At an event co-hosted by the United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the good news emanating from international efforts to increase effective defense sector engagement comes as Thailand hosted the 2020 GHSA Ministerial Meeting. Similar side events have been held online during the months of October and November, with the ministerial meeting’s plenary sessions scheduled for the middle of November.

In achieving the vision of GHSA, Smith added, “the importance of defense sector engagement, including both military-to-military and military-to-civilian collaboration helps ensure a world safe and secure from global health threats posed by infectious diseases, whether naturally occurring, deliberate or accidental.” Given that the challenges posed by COVID vary in size, amount, degree and nature around the world, Smith stressed the importance of international multi-sector cooperation in the finding of answers. “No one has the magic elixir on this one,” he cautioned.

Participation in the event by Major General Tanainit Chotanaphuti, director general of the Royal Thai Army’s Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences underscored important work, particularly in the fight against infectious diseases, that is supported through hands-on cooperation with international partners. Col. Erik Lombardini, director of U.S. Army Medical Directorate - Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences, noted that six decades of mutual U.S.-Thai cooperation has been central “in saving hundreds of millions of lives around the globe.”

“We are very excited to have this platform today to highlight some of the key defense partnerships within the Indo-Pacific region that support the objectives of GHSA 2024,” Smith said, “including one which is based right here in Thailand, and which collectively illustrate the importance of defense sector engagement.”

Commodore Nicole Curtis, ADF director general for operational health, offered a unique look at the impact of engagement now carried out at the highest level of government in 54 countries. Such cooperation, she said, is being bolstered both by the use of relevant languages and the unfolding use of webinars that are proving to be both efficient and capable of reaching target populations while COVID restrictions remain in force.

David Lasseter, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for countering weapons of mass destruction, offered a sobering review of the specific importance of international cooperation in the context of the key role played by the Department of Defense in global health security.  The challenges posed by COVID, he noted, include possible impacts on military readiness, the diversion of resources from traditional military missions, and increases in destabilization around the globe.

In the international fight of weapons of mass destruction, Lasseter added, the help of international biosecurity partners is fundamental in improving the safety standards of foreign bio-laboratories. Such cooperation is needed, he noted, in the face of rapidly evolving threats, particularly with an “even more challenging” proliferation of dual use technology. Biological threat reduction efforts, Lasseter said, have involved more than 100 institutions in more than 30 countries since 2004.

Reflecting the need to develop and integrate a defense-oriented platform at the GHSA Ministerial Meetings to encourage defense and security participation and engagement, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Pamela Miller, a USINDOPACOM surgeon, offered insight into the U.S. model.

“We serve in a complementary and supportive role with our civilian colleagues,” Miller said, pointing to the fact that unique assets held by DOD are given for use by civilian authorities. At the same time, roles carried out by military teams are often “fairly complex and require labor-intensive coordination.”

Echoing Smith’s admonition about supposed COVID-19 elixirs, Miller noted that part of the fight was “trying to learn from the pandemic response.”

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