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New report: Future pandemics pose massive risks to human lives, global economic security

Infectious disease outbreaks that turn into epidemics or pandemics can kill millions of people and cause trillions of dollars of damage to economic activity, says a new report from the international, independent Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future. Few other risks pose such a threat to human lives, and few other events can damage the economy so much. The Commission estimated the global expected economic loss from potential pandemics could average more than $60 billion per year. Yet, nations devote a fraction of the resources to preparing, preventing, or responding infectious disease crises as they do to strengthening national security or avoiding financial crises.

The Commission recommended an investment of approximately $4.5 billion per year – which equates to 65 cents per person – to enhance prevention, detection, and preparedness. The biggest component of this investment is to upgrade public health infrastructure and capabilities for low- and middle-income-countries, which is estimated to cost up to $3.4 billion per year. The second biggest component of the $4.5 billion figure is $1 billion per year to fund accelerated research and development in a wide range of medical products. The balance relates to financing the strengthening of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) capabilities and funding WHO and World Bank contingency funds.

“We have neglected this dimension of global security,” said Commission chair Peter Sands, former group chief executive officer, Standard Chartered PLC in London, and senior fellow, Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy school in Cambridge, Mass. “Pandemics don’t respect national boundaries, so we have a common interest in strengthening our defenses against infectious diseases in every part of the world. Preventing and preparing for potentially catastrophic pandemics is far more effective – and ultimately, far less expensive – than reacting to them when they occur, which they will.”

For example, in the past 15 years, the world faced several infectious disease crises, including Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and the influenza virus known as H1N1. The Commission’s own estimates suggest that at least one pandemic will emerge over the next 100 years, with a 20 percent chance of seeing four or more.

To protect against these threats, the top priority must be to reinforce the first line of defense against potential pandemics, public health capabilities, and infrastructure at a national level, even in failed or fragile states, because regional or global capabilities cannot compensate for deficiencies at a national or local level. This requires governments to prioritize investment in their health systems, as part of their fundamental duty to protect their people, the report says. It also requires effective engagement of communities, given the vital role they play in outbreak detection and response. Countries like Uganda have demonstrated that even where resources are scarce, it is possible to strengthen health systems and contain infectious disease outbreaks.