The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is opening its first regional office in a developed nation, with the post in Japan set to enhance its work with allies on disease monitoring amid rising geopolitical tensions with China.
“This region is incredibly important,” CDC Director Mandy Cohen said in an interview in Tokyo on Monday. “It’s where a number of emerging infectious diseases have come from prior and so it’s important for us to be able to share information quickly to jointly invest in health security platforms and capacity.”
As the world moves to living with Covid-19, health experts are looking at lessons learned from the pandemic to prepare for the next threat. While the past four years have highlighted the need for research, technology development and robust health-care systems, deficiencies in information-sharing have emerged as a major flash point between the US and China.
Washington has long criticized Beijing for not being forthcoming about the earliest days of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. No definitive cause has ever been pinned down, but the US has concluded two plausible origins: The virus emerged in animals and spread to humans, or that it sprang from an incident at a lab. Chinese officials say they participate in work that is based on science and have shared information with the World Health Organization.
Japan’s pandemic management was widely viewed as a major success, with the country able to keep its death rate low without the government ever officially imposing lockdowns. Experts point to factors including a high level of compliance with social-distancing rules, near-universal mask-wearing, high vaccination levels and limited social activity.
That’s made it an attractive partner for future collaboration, according to Cohen. “They were very successful at protecting the country of Japan and thinking about what were the right protocols and parameters to put in place,” she said.
Cohen emphasized the new CDC office’s focus is on health security. But the post is also likely to take on an important role in advancing US national interests, according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
“Health and security are inextricably linked,” the think tank said in a Feb. 1 commentary. The new office will “strengthen preparedness against future dangerous outbreaks and improve the health status of the region’s citizens while contributing to U.S. foreign policy and geopolitical goals,” it said.
The office will be led by Michelle McConnell, an epidemiologist who was previously director for Asia and the Pacific at the US Department of Health and Human Services’ office of global affairs. The CDC has staff across the world and in Asia has a presence in countries including China, Pakistan and Vietnam.
“We have to be collaborating across the entire region in order to make sure that we are safe and protected,” said Cohen. “The world is complex and that is why partnership is so crucial. We can’t do it alone.”