President Obama addressed health officials from dozens of countries who had gathered Friday at the White House to determine ways the international community can strengthen defenses against future epidemics, such as the Ebola outbreak now raging in West Africa.
"Now, the good news is today, our nations have begun to answer the call," Obama told the group. "With all the knowledge, all the medical talent, all the advanced technologies at our disposal, it is unacceptable if, because of lack of preparedness and planning and global coordination, people are dying when they don't have to. So we have to do better -- especially when we know that outbreaks are going to keep happening."
The president also issued a challenge to all entrepreneurs and manufacturers to design better health protective gear that can be sent to contain the spread of the virus in West Africa.
"If you design them, we will make them. We will pay for them," he said. "And our goal is to get them to the field in a matter of months to help the people working in West Africa right now. I’m confident we can do this."
Before Obama addressed the gathering, top medical officials spoke in unusually frank terms about the missteps that have been made in responding to the spread of the virus in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
"We know that if global health security had been implemented in West Africa… the world would be a completely different place today," said Tom Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding that Ebola represented a critical test. "We, the world, failed that test."
Obama said the outbreak underscored the urgency of the global community's task. "This epidemic underscores -- vividly and tragically -- what we already knew, which is, in a world as interconnected as ours, outbreaks anywhere, even in the most remote villages and the remote corners of the world, have the potential to impact everybody, every nation."
Kenya's health minister, James Macharia, whose country is working with Denmark to establish a new agency focused on bioterrorism and biosecurity, said conflicts both inside and outside his nation pose a challenge.
"We are surrounded by countries with internal problems, internal strife," he said. "We have to be extremely vigilant when dealing with these matters."
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, said the United States and other nations need to "help countries in West Africa beat back the epidemic – which we can do if we respond properly – but we also need to look ahead and think about what this means, what this underscores, and think about the long-term imperatives."
"This epidemic’s severity is just one symptom of uneven global development – inequity in health delivery systems, extreme poverty and crumbling public health systems," Kerry said. "So in the short term, yes, we need emergency containment. But in the long term, we need to help the hardest-hit countries build the kind of health systems and infrastructure that will allow them to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to the next infectious disease, to any other outbreak, to stop those outbreaks in the first place before they become epidemics."
National security adviser Susan Rice noted at the opening that when the World Health Organization gave its members a June 2012 deadline to adopt its universally-recognized international health regulations, 80 percent of countries either failed to implement them or did not report back on their progress.
"That’s dangerous, and that’s what we’re here to help change," she said. "So, we need leaders around the world—not only health ministers and veterinary experts, but also presidents and prime ministers and national security leaders—to work together to address this threat with the seriousness and urgency it deserves."
While much of the discussion was sober, one speaker struck a note of optimism: Melvin Korkor, a Liberian doctor who contracted Ebola from a nurse he was working with. Korkor -- who was only given a 1-in-10 chance of survival -- quarantined himself, forced himself to eat and took solace in prayer. "I said to myself I was going to make it," Korkor has said of his experience.
Obama told Korkor that his story reminds the world that "even now, in the face of unimaginable suffering, there’s still hope."
"So, Melvin, your story reminds us that this virus can be beaten, because there are strong people, determined people in these countries who are prepared to do what it takes to save their friends and countrymen and families," the president said. "But they need a little help."