Although far from perfect, the international community has developed a system to ensure global security and stability. Countries share intelligence about hostile military activities, warnings about possible environmental threats like hurricanes, and cooperate to prevent acts of terrorism. When threats to global security cannot be prevented, states are expected to work together to mitigate the risk as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it seems that we have thorough contingency plans in place for everything except disease. According to security experts, the international community would be powerless to mount an effective defense against a major epidemic in the absence of global and regional stockpiles of medicines.
The WHO has stated that the establishment of a global stockpile of essential medicine is one of the most important foreign policy issues of our time. It requires the capacity to communicate with an array of actors dispersed all over the world, quick response to threats in distant places, and commitments beyond the health sector. So what have we done about it? Nothing. It’s true that there are several formidable challenges to establishing a global medicine reserve including the limited shelf-life of most drugs, manufacturing and license costs, shipping and logistical difficulties, and uncertain demand.
While these problems are not easy to solve, I think we can overcome them with a little creative thinking. We already have lots of reasons to establish a global stockpile of medicines as the consequences of inaction are evident; we’ve run out of drugs to treat the ancient scourge of tuberculosis. And it is not only TB patients in some distant land that are dying because of medicine shortages. Patients with cancer, staph infections, and other illnesses here in the United States are suffering from a widespread shortage of prescription drugs. To me, the choice between preparing for the worst and doing nothing is a choice between life and death.