Three lessons for preparing for the “next pandemic”

The Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) has called on the global healthcare community to embrace technology to prevent future pandemics. He cautioned, however, that the use of advanced health systems will not be sustainable if they are not resilient and able to withstand major threats in the future.

Speaking at the 2022 World Government Summit in Dubai via video link today, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated that the COVID-19 pandemic will not be “the last” the world will face. However, governments can work together to better prepare for possible eventualities in the future.

“It is certain that COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic, but how likely is it to occur? And how much damage [will it] because when does it happen? he asked. “These are areas where we have influence. We must learn the lessons of this pandemic.

THE WIDER CONTEXT

In his remarks, Ghebreyesus offered three recommendations for governments and health sectors going forward, the first of which is to embrace new technologies to ensure more equitable production and distribution of vaccines.

“Strengthening local vaccine production, especially in low- and middle-income countries, is essential to increase their independence and foster their self-reliance,” he said. “In many countries, vaccines have helped turn the tide of the pandemic, saving lives and protecting health systems. But as we speak, more than 80% of Africa’s population has yet to receive a single dose of the vaccine, and the testing access gap is even worse.

“It has become clear that equity cannot be left to market forces or the goodwill of donors…Expanding local production of vaccines and other health products is a top priority for WHO.

Ghebreyesus cited the establishment of the WHO mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Center in Cape Town in July last year, which has “now developed its own vaccine candidate”, he said.

“So far, 13 low- and middle-income countries have reportedly received technology from the hub to produce their own mRNA vaccines.”

The second lesson, said the Director-General, was that health systems needed to be strengthened and that cutting-edge technology was not enough.

“A resilient system is not the same as an advanced medical care system,” he continued. “Health systems have been severely disrupted, including reproductive, maternal and newborn health services, as well as routine immunizations and care for non-communicable diseases.

“For too long, too many countries have blithely invested in sophisticated medical care, but too little in public health. As a result, their health systems have been overwhelmed.

He added, “The backbone of public health relies on strong primary health care to detect epidemics at the earliest possible stage, as well as to prevent disease and promote health at the community level.

WHY IS IT IMPORTANT

Essentially, there needs to be more cross-collaboration, as Ghebreyesus explained in his third recommendation.

“The third lesson is that the world needs an improved global architecture for pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. In the face of a global crisis, no country, organization or agency can go it alone,” he said. “The pandemic has, once again, illustrated the value of multilateralism. Instead of confusion and inconsistency, we need cooperation in the face of common threats, as well as sufficient resources to strengthen global health security.

Explaining the need “for a self-sustaining and funded WHO at its core” to coordinate with partners, Ghebreyesus explained that WHO member states are “negotiating an international agreement towards [a] a more harmonized global response to future pandemics and epidemics, including the equitable sharing of countermeasures”.

New digital systems and tools are being put in place to “prevent, detect and respond quickly to epidemics and pandemics”, he added.

These include the WHO Center for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, established in Berlin in September 2021; the WHO BioHub system for sharing pathogens in Switzerland; and the recent Global Strategy for Genomic Surveillance of Pathogens with Pandemic and Epidemic Potential.

Earlier today, the WHO released its 10-year strategy for genomic surveillance of pathogens, sharing that currently one in three countries lacks the capacity to use this essential tool.

REGISTRATION

Ghebreyesus concluded: “Above all, the pandemic has shown us that health is not simply an outcome of development, but the foundation of social, economic and political stability.

“It’s not a cost, but an investment. It is not a luxury for the few, but a basic human right for all. The World Government Summit [provides] an opportunity to work together for shared solutions, to share threats, and a healthier, safer and fairer future for all.

Norma A. Roth