3 things the world is doing to prepare for the next pandemic

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Simon Torkington, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • The Pandemic Fund has been established after COVID-19 to protect against future health crises.
  • The fund provides global protection with a focus on low- to middle-income countries.
  • More sophisticated virus surveillance and alert systems are required at a global level, say experts.
  • AI and machine learning is being used to assess early risks from emerging diseases.
  • Protecting nature reduces the risk of animal viruses infecting the human population.

It’s now three years since the first reports emerged of a previously unknown respiratory virus circulating in China.

As we settled into the New Year of 2020, few people could even imagine the devastation that was about to be unleashed. The virus we now know as COVID-19 caused the first pandemic of the 21st century, exposing fundamental weaknesses in systems that were supposed to minimize the impact of unexpected health emergencies.

The result was a spike in infections and deaths that affected every country on the planet. COVID-19 is still infecting millions of people every month and thousands are still dying.

Looking back to the start of the pandemic, the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University has recorded more than 661 million COVID-19 infections and more than 6.6 million COVID-related deaths.

Funding resilience to global health shocks

To ensure the world is better prepared for the next unseen health emergency, a partnership of nations, foundations and civil society organizations has launched the Pandemic Fund.

The Pandemic Fund will operate under the auspices of the World Bank, which will act as trustee. The Secretariat will be based at the World Bank under the leadership of Executive Head Priya Basu, a specialist in development finance.

The broad remit of the Pandemic Fund is to bolster pandemic preparedness and response (PPR) by targeting investment at areas of weakness, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

“The Pandemic Fund has a unique and vital role to play in making the world safer,” said Dr Chatib Basri, co-chair of the Pandemic Fund Governing Board. “PPR is a global public good that benefits all. Every dollar we mobilize to invest in PPR now in low- and middle-income countries will save lives and financial costs and lead to a more resilient world for years to come,” said Basri.


3 ways the world can prepare for the next pandemic

The Pandemic Fund is just one initiative among a range of actions designed to offer protection in the event of the next health emergency. Here are three other ways the world can reduce the risks of future shocks.

1. Genomic pathogen surveillance

The ability to rapidly detect pathogens that could cause a pandemic will be critical in the effective management of pandemics. Identifying and immediately sharing the genome sequences of dangerous pathogens can speed up the development and distribution of effective medical interventions.

AI and machine learning are being used to detect the threat of viruses jumping the species barrier between animals and humans. A report in the journal, Nature, detailed how the FluLeap machine learning algorithm detected human compatibility of H5N8 avian influenza viruses after an outbreak in Russia. The UK-based British Medical Journal has published calls for a new global surveillance network to detect dangerous viruses.

2. Modular vaccine factories

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed a huge disparity in the ability to manufacture and provide widespread access to vaccines. As recently as 20 July 2022, nearly three-quarters (72%) of people in high-income countries had received a vaccine, compared to just one in five (30%) in low-income ones, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

In an attempt to overcome vaccine inequality, manufacturer BioNTech has developed turnkey vaccine factories made from shipping containers. The first factory is being shipped to Rwanda and should be operational in the first quarter of 2023.

BioNtech said the facility at Kigali will house the first BioNtainer, which is expected to become part of a wider supply network spanning several African nations that will have access to the mRNA-based vaccine.

3. Protecting nature to prevent pandemics

Three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases are transferred to people from wildlife, according to the World Health Organization. These “zoonotic” diseases are often transmitted by viruses like COVID-19, as well as other diseases such as Ebola and bird flu.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) says animal diseases cross over into human populations when people come into close contact with affected wildlife. This happens, says UNEP, “when practices that disrupt the balance of nature raise the risk of disease and transmission”.

UNEP has identified six nature-based solutions that can help protect against future pandemics. These measures include: protecting wildlife habitats, restoring ecosystems, safeguarding species diversity and ensuring a safe, legal and sustainable wildlife trade. UNEP is also calling for greener supply chains and ambitious international environmental policies.

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