Officials Prepare to Keep Pentagon Building Running in Event of Major Coronavirus Outbreak

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Army Garrison Casey conduct pre-screening for coronavirus
Soldiers stationed on U.S. Army Garrison Casey conduct pre-screening processes on individuals awaiting entry to the base, USAG-Casey, Dongducheon, Republic of Korea, Feb. 26, 2020. Additional screening measures of a verbal questionnaire and temperature check are in response to the heighted awareness of Coronavirus (COVID-19) following a surge in cases throughout the Republic of Korea and are meant to help control the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the force. (U.S. Army photo/Amber I. Smith)

Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with senior leaders Thursday to gauge the military's response to the novel coronavirus epidemic worldwide, including preparations to protect the Pentagon building itself and its massive workforce of more than 20,000.

Esper said he expects an updated plan to be ready sometime next week.

"We're fully confident that we can continue to perform the functions that the Pentagon needs to perform if we have some type of outbreak in the building," he said.

The preparations could include those put in place at other facilities, such as regularly disinfecting common areas and surfaces. Ultimately, the core functions vital to the nation's defense would be uninterrupted, Esper said at a joint Pentagon news conference with Ben Wallace, Britain's secretary of state for defense.

Related: Coronavirus and the US Military's Response

As an example, Esper cited the highly secure National Military Command Center, essentially the Pentagon's nerve center known as the "tank" deep within the building, which has the mission of sending Emergency Action Messages to missile launch centers in the event of nuclear war.

"We have a lot of capabilities in this building," he said. "Our National Military Command Center has the capability to go for weeks at a time if they have to be locked down inside the building if we have some type of outbreak."

At a separate Pentagon news conference Thursday, a panel of Defense Department health officials and Brig. Gen. Michael Talley, head of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, said work by military researchers on developing a coronavirus vaccine is proceeding, but declined to speculate on when a vaccine might be available.

Talley said military researchers are also working on treatments and drugs that might be used to lessen the effects of the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19, until a vaccine is ready.

Dr. Nelson Michael, director of the center for Infectious Disease Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said the military's work on a vaccine is being done separately but in support of vaccine research by other organizations.

He also said the Army researchers are "working very, very closely" with researchers at the National Institutes of Health led by Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Michael declined to speculate on when a vaccine might be ready but said he agreed with Fauci's estimates that a vaccine could be a year or 18 months away.

Earlier, at a House Appropriations subcommittee on defense hearing, Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said that thus far there have been four confirmed cases of coronavirus in the military and 12 suspected cases worldwide.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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