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US-Russia Cooperation in Biomedical/Public Health

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Capt. Tanya Tsosie draws blood from a simulated Ebola patient Oct. 24, 2014, during a week-long training course at the San Antonio Military Medical Center, Texas. Tsosie is a nurse assigned to a 30-member medical response team designed to support civilian medical professionals in the event of an Ebola outbreak in the United States. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

Overview

The US and Russia share a common interest in preventing the spread of diseases and pursuing life-improving and potentially life-saving research into the fields of public health and biomedical science. The generally apolitical and mutually beneficial nature of treating and preventing the spread of disease also makes it an attractive area for cooperation between the two powers.

 

Joint-Research Projects in the Fields of Public Health and Biomedical Science

The US and Russia should continue to pursue and expand mutually beneficial research agreements aimed at improving the quality of life of people everywhere by understanding and countering disease and human health.

Why?

The US and Russia have historically been able to maintain dialogue with one another through scientific exchanges and research agreements on non-military subjects such as public health and biomedical science. These agreements build trust and establish another platform for communication between both countries while also advancing technologies that benefit people everywhere. The relatively uncontroversial nature of research into improving and protecting human health also makes these agreements more resilient to political attacks by political elements that might otherwise oppose any sort of cooperation. These agreements also drive down the research costs of both countries, which allows them to get more bang-for-their-buck out of Research and Development budgets.

This plan is low risk

The research is into areas that are almost purely humanitarian and not subject to the zero-sum logic of areas of research that are more easily militarized. There is always the risk that research agreements can be terminated as a means of punishment for foreign policy actions in other arenas, but that option is shared by both the US and Russia. Due to the mutually beneficial nature of research agreements, they are less likely to be targeted as countermoves in foreign policy disputes. Even with that in mind, given the US’ massive R&D spending, Russia would have relatively more to lose in the event that a research agreement is called off. This would provide the US with another lever of influence in foreign policy disputes.

 

Build Greater Capacity to Treat and Prevent HIV/AIDS in Former USSR

The US and Russia should work together to build public health capacity and spread best practices to the countries of the former Soviet bloc, particularly with the goal of improving the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. The US should continue to pursue and expand its current efforts to counter HIV/AIDS and Russia should use its historical ties with these countries as well as its own medical personnel to supplement these efforts.

Why?

Every former Soviet state in Central Asia has seen a significant rise in the number of HIV/AIDS cases from 2001 to 2011 and the trend has continued. Intravenous drug use and sex trafficking continue to play a substantial role in the growth of HIV/AIDS cases in these countries, and, due to the prevalence of Central Asian migrant works in Russia, increases in Central Asian infection rates can contribute to Russia’s own HIV/AIDS epidemic. Russia can use its influence in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in conjunction with US efforts to spread best practices and fund program for prevention and treatment to reverse the trend of HIV/AIDS infections. Pursuing this will contribute to stability in the region, mitigate an important factor in Russia’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, and reduce the risks of HIV/AIDS spreading to further countries. This also poses an opportunity to continue to improve the US image and influence within the region. Additionally, if this project is pursued, at least in part, through civil society organizations, it can destigmatize the “Foreign Agent” label required by multiple Central Asian states and Russia, which has been used to discredit civil society at large.

Getting medical personnel from the host countries, the US, and Russia to work together can facilitate the spread of best practices while also improving the interoperability of each country’s public health apparatus. Furthermore, medical experts that return to their host countries can use their influence within their public health systems to advocate for broad shifts in public health policy that can be even more impactful. This is especially salient in the case of Russia where public health policy has failed to stop a steady increase in the number of HIV/AIDS cases. Adding more voices and firsthand experience to those voices already advocating for more effective policies could be what’s needed to provoke those meaningful shifts.

This plan carries moderate risks

To get around issues arising from “Foreign Agents” law that exists in Kazakhstan and a similar law in Tajikistan, the US and Russia will have to continue to work with national governments. The goal would be a repeal or revision of “Foreign Agents” laws to remove that label and its accompanying restrictions from organizations that seek to treat and prevent more HIV/AIDS cases. As long as those laws exist and are enforced, civil society actors will not be able to contribute as much as they could to the fight against HIV/AIDS due to the stigma associated with being labeled a “Foreign Agent.” Working with the host governments is an essential part of this strategy, but failing to include other relevant members of the host country will reduce the efficacy of anti-HIV/AIDS efforts and could inadvertently strengthen less-than-democratic forces within the country. US and Russian pressure applied towards ensuring broad cooperation at the national, regional, and non-governmental levels to counter the largely apolitical field of epidemic prevention can build trust between parts of society that are frequently at odds.

This is a difficult balancing act that would benefit immensely from Russian assistance, but it will also require careful framing and effective public and private diplomacy to keep the program focused on uniting societal elements against HIV/AIDS. If the perception takes root that the primary goal of the program is democratization, the entire program could fall apart and Russia would almost certainly refuse to assist in its success. At the same time, any effective strategy to counter HIV/AIDS requires broad societal engagement that would be difficult to achieve purely through national governments.

 

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