Tackling COVID-19: The Latest Challenge for U.S.-Thai Health Cooperation
By U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Michael George DeSombre
This year, World Health Day (April 7) falls during a particularly solemn time, as humankind grapples with the worst disease pandemic of the past 100 years. Each day brings a sobering update of the rising death toll caused by COVID-19, from China to Italy, from the United States to Thailand, and every country in between. World Health Day in 2020 has been designated to honor and celebrate the role of nurses in keeping the world healthy, and I join in paying tribute to those who are putting their lives on the line at this very moment to protect all of us from this terrible disease.
In the midst of this grim news, however, we see glimmers of hope. Thailand’s health care system, widely regarded as among the best in Southeast Asia, is now bringing all of its talent and resources to bear to control the outbreak. It is doing so hand-in-hand with experts from the U.S. government. All told, about 20 percent of the personnel in U.S. Mission Thailand – one of the world’s largest embassies – work on health issues with our Thai partners. Some examples:
Our U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has its largest overseas office right here in Bangkok, has four decades of partnership and is co-located with the Thai Ministry of Public Health (MOPH). It has provided over $133 million to MOPH and the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to support various public health programs related to HIV/AIDS, pandemic influenza, and other infectious diseases.
Since 2003, the U.S. government has been building the laboratory capacity of MOPH staff to detect emerging infectious diseases of importance to the Thai people. The CDC-MOPH collaboration led to the development of the MOPH emergency operations center (EOC) in 2014, which is today the control center of the response to COVID-19. In the EOC, you will find many U.S.-trained Thai experts who have received state of the art training in the United States and here in Thailand to enhance their public health management.
Since 1961, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has worked with Thai doctors, nurses, and researchers to improve the health of the people of Thailand. Over these six decades, the American people, through USAID, have contributed more than $1 billion to support Thailand, including almost $2 million just last month to assist Thailand’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another U.S. government agency, the Armed Forces Research Institute of Medical Sciences (AFRIMS), traces its roots back over 57 years as a military medical collaboration between the U.S. Army and the Royal Thai Army. The U.S. Army and MOPH collaborated on the famous “moon landing of HIV vaccine research,” the RV144 trial in Thailand that first demonstrated the possibility of preventing HIV infection, back in 2003. The leader of that trial from the U.S. Army side is now a very recognizable face: Dr. Deborah Birx, the State Department Ambassador who is now the coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force. The AFRIMS-Royal Thai Army relationship has also been very successful in researching tropical infectious diseases and developing therapeutics, vaccines, and other measures to protect Americans and Thais alike. These combined efforts in research and development, in conjunction with separate academic research supported by the National Institutes of Health, have led to significant decreases in such diseases as Japanese encephalitis, Hepatitis A, malaria, and HIV.
The strong history of U.S.-Thai collaboration on health extends back almost 200 years to Dr. Dan Beach Bradley’s contributions to early Thai medicine in the 1830’s, and over 100 years since the “Father of Modern Medicine” in Thailand, Prince Mahidol of Songkhla, devoted his life to health care during his studies at Harvard University. It was in Massachusetts that the Prince negotiated an agreement with the Rockefeller Foundation to provide seed funding for education in Thailand’s burgeoning medicine, nursing, and public health institutions.
The prominence of Thailand’s science and medical facilities today was borne from these early seeds of U.S.-Thai public-private health collaboration, instigated by Prince Mahidol and the generations of Thai students that followed him at U.S. universities. The U.S. and Thailand continue to build resilient health care systems throughout the Indo-Pacific region that can prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. Just as together we have made the world more healthy, peaceful, and prosperous for generations, so will we lead in defeating our shared pandemic enemy and rising stronger in its wake.
In the international arena, the U.S. government continues to support Thailand’s leadership role in the Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) – a group of 67 countries, international organizations, NGOs, and private sector companies with the goal to have a world safe and secure from infectious disease threats.
The U.S. has been the largest contributor to the World Health Organization (WHO) since 1948. In 2019 alone, the United States gave more than $400 million to the WHO. That’s nearly double the contribution of the second-largest contributor.
The same goes for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which is engaged in emergency actions across the globe. In 2019, the U.S. supported UNICEF with $700 million. Likewise, the World Food Program, which has sent 85 shipments of food and PPE to 74 countries battling the virus. We provided $8 billion in resources last year – 42% of its total budget.
The United States has always understood that global health security depends on resilient, transparent, and responsive health care systems. That’s why one-third of America’s entire foreign-assistance budget goes to international health programs, or nearly $120 billion, since 2001.
That includes the aid the United States offered to the Chinese people in the earliest phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. As one of the first countries to offer assistance to China in early February, the U.S. transported nearly 18 tons of medical supplies from the American people to Wuhan, China, on the same planes that would return full of American citizen evacuees. Later that week, we pledged to spend up to $100 million to assist China and other impacted countries through multilateral organization and bilateral assistance, to fight what would become a pandemic. President Trump has now increased that amount to $274 million in total.
Beyond government assistance, it is also important to remember that as a promoter of private sector development, the United States relies on its citizens, businesses, NGOs and charities to contribute to humanitarian causes worldwide. Just as private-public sector collaboration was instrumental in developing Thailand’s health system infrastructure, so it continues to be in the fight against COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. That is why private American institutions, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have given a combined total of $1.5 billion to fight the pandemic overseas. History has shown that when we bring our governments and private sectors together, in both the United States and Thailand, there is no limit to what we can achieve – particularly in the field of health – during these challenging times.
(The Thai version of this Op-Ed was originally published in Thai Rath newspaper on April 7, 2020.)