The Complex

Top WMD Expert Leaves the Pentagon to Fight Ebola Full Time

Whether we’re at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the Ebola outbreak is going to depend on the "impact of international action," said Andrew Weber, the soon-to-be deputy at the State Department’s recently created Ebola Coordination Unit. That’s because if the world doesn’t get a handle on the disease soon, the ...

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Whether we’re at the beginning, in the middle, or near the end of the Ebola outbreak is going to depend on the "impact of international action," said Andrew Weber, the soon-to-be deputy at the State Department’s recently created Ebola Coordination Unit.

That’s because if the world doesn’t get a handle on the disease soon, the number of people infected with the disease is going to skyrocket, according to U.S. and international health officials.

West Africa could face up to 10,000 new Ebola cases a week within two months if more isn’t done in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, the three countries hardest hit by the disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday, Oct. 14. In the meantime, the international community is having trouble keeping up with the current 1,000 new cases a week.

This epidemic is also more deadly than previously believed, killing roughly 70 percent of those who contract the disease, the WHO said. According to the WHO’s latest report, Ebola has already killed 4,033 people.

"If we don’t turn it very soon, the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s] modeling talks about 1.4 million infected by the end of January if we don’t slow it down," Weber said, speaking from his home in Virginia during his week off before he starts his new job.

The fight against Ebola in West Africa is a race against time, and Weber, who most recently served as the Defense Department’s top expert on weapons of mass destruction, wants to be a part of it, calling the epidemic the "biggest biological event" of his lifetime.

On Monday, after 18 years at the Pentagon, he will start work as Nancy Powell’s deputy. Powell, who resigned as ambassador to India in May, was assigned her new role as leader of the State Department’s Ebola Coordination Unit in September.

While the White House continues to coordinate the U.S. government’s response, Weber and Powell are tasked with drumming up more international resources to stem the Ebola outbreak.

For the last five and a half years, Weber has served as assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. He led the Defense Department’s efforts to destroy Libya’s chemical weapons and rid Syria of its stockpile.

After accomplishing much of what he’d set out to do at the Pentagon, Weber said he was ready for a change. He started out his career as a foreign service officer, so though he has spent the bulk of his career on the military side of things, returning to the State Department is actually a return to his roots.

"I’ve been passionate about biological threats for the last 20 years, and this is certainly the biggest potential biological event in my lifetime, so I wanted to be working it full time," Weber said. "I’m very, very excited about this. This is about saving lives. What could be more motivating than that?"

At the State Department, Weber said, he’ll be working to mobilize resources internationally to help fill the gaps that remain on the ground in West Africa. The most pressing need is for more treatment and isolation centers.

In Sierra Leone, where hundreds of patients with Ebola cannot find room in any treatment center, steps are being taken to help treat people with the disease at home. This in turns increases the risk of contamination and ensures that the disease will continue to spread among family members.

According to the WHO, there are 304 beds in Sierra Leone, when 1,148 are needed. Guinea has 160, but needs 210. And in Liberia, where the United States is taking the lead, there are 620 beds today, but 2,930 are needed.

To meet this demand, the United States plans to set up 17 100-bed Ebola treatment units in Liberia and a 25-bed hospital in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, where health-care workers can be treated if they contract the disease. Weber said this hospital will be staffed with U.S. public health service doctors.

The Pentagon is deploying up to 4,000 U.S. troops to help build the centers and to provide logistics and engineering support. The Defense Department also has three operational Ebola testing labs in Liberia, with plans to add at least four more. They are staffed by personnel from the U.S. Naval Medical Research Center who are highly trained to handle dangerous materials like Ebola samples, the Pentagon says.

The plan is to have at least one testing lab per treatment center, according to Weber. The U.S. military will provide some of those labs, but Weber, in his new job, will try to get international partners to provide some of the resources, he said.

Getting the treatment centers up and running is viewed as the key to reversing the curve on the outbreak because until they are completed, patients with Ebola cannot be properly isolated.

If the disease’s current trajectory can be halted, then current plans will be enough to meet the needs on the ground, Weber said. But if the curve continues to rise, "then we won’t be able to keep up."

Just having U.S. military personnel on the ground has already restored some confidence, Weber said. For example, volunteer aid workers are returning to hotels in Liberia and Sierra Leone because they are better assured that if they contract the disease they’ll get proper treatment or they’ll be evacuated.

Although things might get worse before they get better in West Africa, the threat to the United States is "extremely limited and has been overly hyped by the media," according to Weber.

Following the infection of a health-care worker in Dallas, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday that it needs to rethink Ebola care instructions at hospitals across the country. The infected nurse had been wearing proper protective gear when treating the Ebola patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who died from the disease last week.

But if the number of new cases climbs to 10,000 a week — today’s worst-case scenario — the risk of export to the United States does go up, Weber said. Still, the bigger concern is the export of the disease to countries that neighbor Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, where public health infrastructure is lacking.

"We’re working on putting in a firewall in those countries," Weber said. This includes ensuring they have emergency operation centers and the ability to do contact tracing of the disease.

Weber said he first saw signs that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was spiraling out of control in late July and early August, when the number of people getting infected started to rapidly climb.

But the real sign that this epidemic is different from ones in the past came when the public health and development community asked for military help. In early September, Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, called for a global military intervention in West Africa to curb the epidemic, saying the international response so far was "lethally inadequate."

"That was a sea change. I think it was unprecedented," Weber said.

But the response to these warnings was not immediate, and Barack Obama’s administration, along with the international community, has continued to be criticized for not doing more earlier.

Weber agreed that it has taken a while for everyone to wake up to the scope of the problem.

"The analogy that I use is the frog in the kettle. It wasn’t like a tsunami or an earthquake that hits all at once and where you know what you’re dealing with. This was slow to come to a full boil, and it wasn’t until it boiled over that the international community recognized the need to act urgently," Weber said.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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