Preventing the Next Pandemics: An Upstream Approach to Novel National Security Threats

Author: Alex Dehgan


COVID-19 is estimated to cost the global economy between $8 to $15 trillion USD, but it is not the first such outbreak, nor will it be the last. Since the 1970's, 70% of emerging infectious diseases have been at the human-wildlife boundary, with new infectious diseases emerging at a faster rate than ever before. This memo proposes a series of actions to shift the focus of our existing strategies from merely reacting to disease outbreaks – which is economically devastating – to detecting, addressing, and mitigating the major upstream factors that contribute to the emergence of such diseases prior to an outbreak, and would come at orders of magnitude lower cost.

To achieve this, the next administration should

  1. launch a strategy aimed at strengthening biosurveillance systems at home and abroad through a global viral weather system for spillover, including harnessing technology and data science to create predictive risk systems;

  2. eliminate existing barriers in international development and foreign policy between food security, global health, and environmental sustainability by establishing a coordinator for planetary health;

  3. address and alter the incentive structures that facilitate spillover, and create new incentives for investments to reduce the risk for spillover through institutions like the Development Finance Corporation; and

  4. create the world’s first climate & biodiversity neutral development agency, to ensure that our development investments aren’t facilitating spillover risks.

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About the Author

Dr. Dehgan is the CEO and co-founder of Conservation X Labs, an innovation and technology startup focused on conservation. Conservation X Labs both builds new technologies for addressing the underlying drivers of extinction, and harnesses open innovation & mass collaboration to attract new solvers and new solutions. Alex raised over $15 million of funding, and built a team of 30 people working across both coasts. Alex is also a Professor of the Practice of Sustainability and the Global Futures Fellow at Arizona State University.

Alex previously served as the Chief Scientist at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), with rank of Assistant Administrator. Alex found and led the Office of Science and Technology (OST), and creating the vision for and helped stand up the Global Development Lab, the Agency’s DARPA for Development. Alex was also part of the founding team of USAID’s Policy Bureau. Prior to USAID, Alex worked in multiple positions at the Dept. of State, including on the Policy Planning Staff and through overseas service under the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, using science to support bilateral diplomacy, including Arab-Israeli relations, engagement with Iran, through leading the science aspects of President Obama’s Cairo Initiative.

Alex was the founding country director of the Wildlife Conservation Society Afghanistan Program and helped create Afghanistan’s first national park. Alex is the author of the book, The Snow Leopard Project, which describes the effort, which was selected by the journal Nature’s book editor as one of the top five science books of 2019. Alex holds a Ph.D in Evolutionary Biology from The University of Chicago and a J.D. from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. Alex has won multiple awards from the Departments of State and Defense, as well as being named an Icon of Science, the World Technology Award, and in 2020, being given the University of Chicago’s Medical and Biological Alumni Association’s highest honor.