EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

For many of us, the dark memory of the COVID-19 pandemic still lingers, as if 2020 was just yesterday, and I’m sure many will agree with me when I say I fervently hope to never see the return of such a period in our lives. But then we never really know.

In a way, the pandemic has changed us and our ways in many ways. I don’t leave the house without a small bottle of alcohol in my bag, spraying my hands often. Whether or not that really helps or if it’s just a habit that gives a placebo effect is anyone’s guess. I’ve also learned to stay away from crowded places or at least I try to and uncomfortable as it is, I still wear masks on airplanes and while transiting in airports.

But even as COVID-19 may be over, the world, the Philippines included, may remain vulnerable to biological threats, including new pathogens.

During a recent trip to the United States, I, along with nine other Filipino journalists, was fortunate to have a briefing with officials from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency or DTRA, which is a unit under the US Department of Defense.

During the briefing, officials shared with us just how vulnerable we could be.

Dr. Rob Pope, director of Cooperative Threat Reduction for DTRA, said that generally, disease-causing pathogens can enter the country or any country for that matter, by several means – from land, air to water transportation.

DTRA is both a defense agency and a combat support agency established to enable the US Department of Defense to deter strategic attacks against the United States and its allies; prevent, reduce and counter weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and emerging threats and prevail against WMDs and armed adversaries in crisis and conflict.

Its Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Department works with international partners to eliminate WMDs and related materials.

CTR has been working with the Philippine government to increase the country’s capability to counter and deter WMDs and the like, through training, risk assessment programs and provision of equipment as well as diagnostic and health security facilities.

The department has been doing this since 2012 through the Proliferation Prevention Program (PPP) in enhancing our government’s ability “to deter, identify and intercept efforts to smuggle WMDs.”

During our meeting, officials also shared with us that DTRA will train some local responders in the Visayas and Mindanao on how to respond to the use of WMDs in case of conflict.

This would be done in cooperation with the Bureau of Fire Protection and the Department of Health. There have been previous trainings conducted by DTRA in the past in several areas in the country.

Among the different threats, Dr. Pope said natural outbreaks and chemicals of security concerns are the biggest threats.

Chemical security

Terrorists in the Philippines, he said, are able to improvise something using chemicals to hurt people.

In this regard, the DTRA’s CTR Security & Elimination Department’s Security Division chief Joanna Wintrol said they are working with the Philippine government to develop a chemical security standard and increase its capability to track chemicals of security concern.

In terms of biological threats, Dr. Pope said the Philippines, being a tropical country, is also potentially vulnerable to human and animal diseases.

“It’s important for the Philippines and the region and for us to be able to handle that capability across the Philippines to see those diseases that circulate in a tropical climate and be able to provide accurate and early diagnosis and reporting so that outbreaks, whether it’s swine fever, influenza, anthrax (can be detected). We can help each other detect these diseases early so they don’t become a large pandemic.”

When asked about the potential impact of heightened tensions in the West Philippine Sea between the Philippines and China, with regard to maritime security and the entry of disease-causing pathogens, Dr. Pope stressed the importance of closely monitoring the area and evaluating it for activities that might enable the proliferation of infectious diseases.

This can happen with the possible entry of chemical and biological materials into the Philippines which may come from anywhere.

“We’re more worried about things that are going to show up terrestrially but we understand that threats to agriculture, threats to animals and threats to humans can come through anywhere that there is transportation, so shipping, air transportation and certainly, heavy international shipping in the West Philippine Sea – that’s one factor than can bring a new pathogen into the Philippines,” Dr. Pope said.

He said that “China violating international maritime laws and claiming areas illegally as their own territory makes the Philippines less safe (and) it makes the US less safe. So we’re all very interested in working to help the Philippines maintain their sovereign rights because that’s going to make us all safer and track all of the same threats we’ve been talking about.”

China is claiming a large part of the South China Sea, including a portion which is inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Our briefing with Dr. Pope in Washington was part of the US government’s Friends, Partners, Allies reporting program administered by the non-profit Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CDRF) Global.

It’s good to be aware of biological threats, including disease-causing pathogens, because as COVID-19 has taught us, a tiny, tiny virus invisible to the human eye can change the world and upend our lives overnight.

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Email: [email protected]. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at EyesWideOpen (Iris Gonzales) on Facebook.

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