A new precedent for tackling infectious diseases

A new precedent for tackling infectious diseases

A failure to prepare costs us far more in the long run. Now is the time to set a new precedent for global collaboration in the fight against infectious diseases

Just this year, we have seen an astonishing number of infectious diseases resurfacing and spreading at concerning rates in a way that we have not seen before. The continuing Covid-19 pandemic, the global spread of monkeypox, the first reported outbreak of Marburg in Ghana, and now the sustained detection of vaccine-derived polio viruses in New York and London are all indicators of the world’s growing vulnerability to infectious diseases.

We could attribute this to an inevitable consequence of 21st-century life. The link between climate and health is increasingly evident, and human interactions with disease vectors, often within animal populations, continue to rise. These are further amplified as cities continue to expand rapidly, and populations are more interconnected than ever, with international trade and travel rebounding. These factors are putting us all at further risk of exposure to infectious diseases. This threat will only truly be addressed through global cooperation and concerted political will and action.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that we can achieve much more by working together. Uncommon levels of global scientific collaboration and the sharing of data and research across borders enabled the world to develop tests, treatments and vaccines in record time. Yet we must acknowledge that more could have been done and faster, if governments had collaborated earlier and the right tools and equitable distribution systems been in place – an opportunity that we must act on now.

Diseases are borderless

Infectious diseases do not respect borders. To prevent and control outbreaks, we need to have the sustained teams and tools in place to monitor diseases locally, while ensuring this information is shared rapidly and transparently nationally and globally and the benefits that arise – access to tests, treatments, vaccines and public health interventions – are also equitably shared. In recognition of the need for a better detection of future threats, last year the G7 launched plans for an International Pathogen Surveillance Network, so that we can spot new variants and emerging pathogens and get ahead of them. This laid the groundwork, but through the G7 Pact for Pandemic Readiness, the World Health Organization Hub in Berlin and other initiatives – we can go a lot further.

This work is just beginning and undoubtedly considerable effort is needed, but we are by no means starting from scratch. Covid-19 has shone a light on how valuable high-quality, real-time data is for an effective response for clinicians, researchers, policymakers and the public alike. In the United Kingdom recently, it was astute clinicians in sexual health clinics – trusted by the communities they were designed to support – that provided the first evidence of the new monkeypox outbreak in non-endemic countries, highlighting the difference that investments in this infrastructure, but also trust, can make.

Now is the time to build on this, improving local resources and expertise as well as testing and sequencing capacity, linking this up globally and ensuring that insights lead to rapid intervention. To work, this must become part of the sustained local infrastructure, not just set up in times of crisis, and able to monitor and respond to all day-to-day health issues as well as monitor for outbreaks of diseases. The persistent rise of drug-resistant infections – a slow-styled pandemic – kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, in all parts of the world. With this infrastructure we could begin to combat it.

Maintaining focus

However, this vital work must continue even as other important matters vie for our attention. Whether at the national level across ministries or at the global level across continents and multilateral organisations, our leaders cannot put this on the backburner. As with any generation-defining event, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to act now, so that a pandemic never disrupts on this scale again. Collaboration will be key to preventing and combatting current and future outbreaks.

As parts of the world strive towards their new ‘normal’, it remains vital that we maintain momentum so that we can enhance health systems and better detect any infectious disease outbreak before it is too late. An easy win is for global leaders to step up support for the World Health Organization and join the International Pathogen Surveillance Network.

Governments must take responsibility and be committed to transparency, and be willing to share information collected nationally with the global communities. But they also have a responsibility to create the right incentives for sharing data and ensure that those who share data do not suffer negative consequences for doing so. Enhancing skills, disseminating knowledge, and integrating local and international teams are critical in addressing inequity and inefficiency in global surveillance.

Now is the time for world leaders to provide and sustain not only the political will but also the sustainable financing required to enable better preparedness. This includes adequately resourcing the newly established Financial Intermediary Fund for Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response, which has broad support from the G20. This new fund will focus on supporting country and regional capabilities, addressing gaps in the world’s infectious disease prevention and preparedness system by working through our communities and established structures, so not adding to an already fragmented system. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, which is why earlier this year Wellcome contributed £10 million as a founding partner to help launch the fund.

The saying ‘unprecedented times’ can lose meaning in overuse, and the urgency behind ‘never again’ often fades as crises recede. We must not let this happen. Recent events have taught us that a failure to prepare costs far more in the longer run. The world is more vulnerable to infectious diseases than perhaps ever before – it is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ there will be a new threat. World leaders must move from warm words to action, and they must do so sooner rather than later.