Ebola epidemic a "potential threat to global security," Obama says

Last Updated Sep 16, 2014 5:13 PM EDT

President Obama on Tuesday announced a major expansion of U.S. aid in the fight against the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, warning that the virus is spiraling out of control and could become a threat to global security if left unchecked.

"In West Africa, Ebola is now an epidemic, of the likes that we have not seen before. It's spiraling out of control; it is getting worse; it's spreading faster and exponentially," Mr. Obama said. "Today thousands of people in West Africa are infected. That number could rapidly grow to tens of thousands. And if the outbreak is not stopped now we could be looking at hundreds of thousands of people infected with profound political and economic and security implications for all of us."

"This is an epidemic that is not just a threat to regional security. Its a potential threat to global security if these countries break down, if their economies break down, if people panic," the president continued. "That has profound affects on all of us even if we are not directly contracting the disease."

Mr. Obama spoke from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, where he received a briefing on the outbreak and met with scientists, doctors and health care workers fighting its spread. Earlier in the day, he met with Kent Brantly, one of the American aid workers who was infected with Ebola in West Africa and returned to the U.S. for treatment. Brantly and another aid worker, Nancy Writebol, recovered and were released from Emory University Hospital last month.

Speaking before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Tuesday, Brantly chastised the international community for giving virtually no attention to the crisis before he and Writebol were infected, and has been too slow to respond since despite intense media attention.

"The response to date...has remained sluggish and unacceptably out of step with the scope and the size of the problem that is now before us. The United States government has been closely following these events in West Africa since that time, if not before, and only now are we seeing a significant commitment to a solution," Brantly said. "It is imperative that these words are backed up by immediate action."

In addition to thanking CDC personnel who are working to fight the outbreak, Mr. Obama said he wanted the American people to know "that our experts here at the CDC and across our government agree that the chances of an Ebola outbreak here in the United States are extremely low." Still, he said, the U.S. has taken extra precautions such as working with West African countries to ensure people are being screened for the virus before boarding planes to the U.S. and helping flight crews to identify those who are sick.

Mr. Obama announced that the U.S. is sending up to 3,000 military personnel to West Africa in order to combat and contain the spread of the Ebola virus, which has been blamed for more than 2,400 deaths in the region so far. The CDC has already dispatched more than 100 employees to West Africa, its largest deployment in history.

Using $500 million in overseas contingency operations funds, the U.S. is stepping up its efforts in the fight against the virus. The Defense Department is planning to build as many as 17 treatment units with a 100-bed capacity each in Liberia, the hardest-hit country. They will train as many as 500 local heath workers per week for up to six months, and are setting up U.S. headquarters in Monrovia, Libera, to coordinate U.S. and international efforts.

The U.S. has already dedicated $175 million to fight the Ebola and the administration has asked for an additional $88 million to fight the virus.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had some critical words on the president's handling of the crisis Tuesday morning.

"I think this Ebola outbreak in Africa is a serious problem and I'm a bit surprised the administration hasn't acted more quickly to address what is a serious threat, not only to Africans but to others around the world," he said.

More than 16 tons of medical supplies and 10,000 sets of personal protective equipment have been shipped to the region from the U.S. since late March. One mobile laboratory is up and running, with two more are on the way.

Senior administration officials on Monday laid out four goals for combating the spread of the virus: control the epidemic at its source, mitigate the effect on local food and water supplies, coordinate and galvanize the U.S. response with the international efforts and fortify global health security.

Mr. Obama also said more countries around the globe need to offer personnel, supplies and funding needed to fight the outbreak. He will discuss the subject when he chairs a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York next week.

"The reality is that this epidemic is going to get worse before it gets better but right now the world still has an opportunity to save countless lives. Right now. The world has a responsibility to act, to step up, and to do more," he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.