The next pandemic | Daily News

The next pandemic

It is not an exaggeration to say that the world knew a pandemic was coming. For years, scientists have been warning the international community of a “Pandemic X”, especially one that is caused by a virus that can jump from an animal to humans (Zoonotic transmission). History is replete with examples of pandemics, from the Bubonic Plague of 1347 (200 million deaths) to the Spanish Flu of 1918 (50 million deaths). Most, if not all, of the pandemics were caused by viruses though bacteria too get a fair share of the blame.

There is also a general belief, though not exactly a scientific one, that a pandemic comes along once in a century. That alone should have sent the alarm bells ringing. Add Climate Change, the increasing wildlife trade and a highly interconnected world (one can go from anywhere to anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours) and all the ingredients were present for a pandemic to happen. And it did.

Despite years of warnings, the world was woefully underprepared to face the COVID pandemic. If it was, at least two million of the four million lives lost to COVID-19 could have been saved. Now, even as the pandemic is raging with no sign of slowing down, the world is still bitterly divided on North-South lines with developed nations hoarding vaccines while some poor countries are yet to inoculate a single person. The developed countries have not taken note of the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s oft-repeated mantra that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. As we mentioned in these columns yesterday, as long as there are people without immunity or protection, the virus gets a chance to mutate and wreak further havoc, in both rich and poor countries. The best strategy is to expedite vaccination all over the world to give everyone a chance to escape COVID.

At least now, the world needs to come together to face a future pandemic, even if it is seemingly too late for a collective approach to the present one. This is exactly what the WHO has done by opening a Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, based in Berlin. The opening ceremony was graced by German Federal Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“The world needs to be able to detect new events with pandemic potential and to monitor disease control measures on a real-time basis to create effective pandemic and epidemic risk management,” said Dr. Tedros. “This Hub will be key to that effort, leveraging innovations in data science for public health surveillance and response, and creating systems whereby we can share and expand expertise in this area globally.”

The WHO Hub, which is receiving an initial investment of US$ 100 million from the Federal Republic of Germany, will harness broad and diverse partnerships across many professional disciplines, and the latest technology, to link the data, tools and communities of practice so that actionable data and intelligence are shared for the common good.

Among its aims are: driving innovations to increase availability of key data; develop state-of-the-art analytic tools and predictive models for risk analysis; and link communities of practice around the world. Critically, the WHO Hub will support the work of public health experts and policy-makers in all countries with the tools needed to forecast, detect and assess epidemic and pandemic risks so they can take rapid decisions to prevent and respond to future public health emergencies.

As the WHO Director General noted, “COVID has revealed the great gaps that exist in the world’s ability to forecast, detect, assess and respond to outbreaks that threaten people worldwide”. Indeed, COVID-19 was a massive failure of the world’s health intelligence and health security systems. Now the world needs to fill these gaps and promote collaboration and sharing in order to be ready before the next pandemic hits. And yes, there could be even more virulent pandemics in the future. But we have a fighting chance with a global collaborative effort of this nature.

It is thus essential to probe the origins of the present pandemic, gain insights on disease emergence, evolution and impact, develop new tools to process, analyze and model data for detection, assessment and response and develop methods for faster decisions on how to address outbreak signals and events.

It is also vital to establish similar mechanisms at country level for international collaboration. Sri Lanka too should establish a Future Pandemic Task Force, that should draw upon the lessons learned from this pandemic. This should comprise eminent medical professionals, scientists and data analysts, along with other relevant professionals. Now that we know what a pandemic looks and feels like, we can cater the future responses from border closures to vaccinations in a much more effective way. Other scientific advancements such as a predicted universal Coronavirus vaccine will also help. But with animals harbouring around one million viruses that can potentially jump to human hosts, the scope is really vast for pandemic research. We must indeed be ready for the next pandemic from now onwards.

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