Three lessons to prepare for the 'next pandemic'

The Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for the global healthcare community to embrace technology to prevent future pandemics. He warned, however, that employing advanced healthcare systems won’t be sustainable if they are not resilient and able to withstand major threats going forward.

Speaking at the World Government Summit 2022 in Dubai via video link today, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be “the last” one the world faces. However, governments can work together to better prepare for any possible ones in the future.

“It’s certain that COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic, but how likely is it to occur? And how much damage [will it] cause when it does?,” he asked. “Those are areas over which we have influence. We must learn the lessons of this pandemic.”

THE LARGER CONTEXT

In his remarks, Ghebreyesus offered three recommendations to governments and healthcare sectors going forward, the first of which is to embrace new technology to ensure fairer production and distribution of vaccines.

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

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

Ghebreyesus cited the establishment of the WHO mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in Cape Town in July of last year, which has “now developed its own vaccine candidate,” he said.

“So far, 13 low- and middle-income countries are said to receive technology from the hub to produce their own mRNA vaccines.”

The second learning, the Director-General stated, was that health systems needed to be strengthened, and that advanced technology wasn’t enough.

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

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

He added: “The backbone of public health is robust primary health care for detecting outbreaks at the earliest possible stage, as well as for preventing disease and promoting health at the community level.”

WHY IT MATTERS

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

“The third lesson is that the world needs an enhanced global architecture for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response. In the face of a global crisis, no single country, organisation, or agency can go it alone,” he said. “The pandemic has, once again, illustrated the value of multilateralism. Instead of confusion and incoherence, we need cooperation in the face of common threats, along with sufficient resources for strengthening global health security.”

Explaining the need for “an empowered and sustainably-financed WHO at its core” in order to coordinate with partners, Ghebreyesus explained that WHO’s member states are “now negotiating an international accord toward [a] more harmonised global response to future pandemics and epidemics, including the equitable sharing of countermeasures.”

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

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

Earlier today, the WHO released its ten-year strategy for genomic surveillance of pathogens, sharing that at present, one in three countries do not have the capacity to use this critical tool.

ON THE RECORD

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

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