I came to Germany last week to attend the 58th Munich Security Conference, which brings together renowned experts on global security, health, development, and international relations. I was excited to hear from heads of state and global health leaders—in person, at long last!—about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on their nations, the infectious disease and inequities concerns they’re currently dealing with, and what we need to be doing today to prevent future pandemics.
It’s clearer than ever that investing in health R&D, disease surveillance, and strong health systems is critical to keeping people safe, wherever they live in the world.
In Munich, I spoke on a panel with Canada’s and Sweden’s foreign ministers, the CEO of the Crisis Group, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general. These leaders echoed sentiments I heard from many others on the trip—themes I’ve thought about a lot while writing a book about how to avoid the next epidemic. For one thing, COVID is still evolving, so we’re not out of the woods yet.
In Munich, I participated in a panel discussion with the foreign ministers of Canada and Sweden, the CEO of the Crisis Group, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general. These leaders echoed ideas I heard from many others on the trip—themes I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about while writing a book about how to avert the next epidemic. For one thing, we’re not out of the woods yet with COVID since the virus is continually changing.
At the same time, the pandemic is changing, with vaccinations and the fast expansion of Omicron appearing to provide protection to many more individuals.
The pandemic continues to obstruct the prevention and treatment of other diseases in all nations, particularly among the poorest. The international response must continue to priorities equality and the protection of the world’s most vulnerable people. We need a long-term strategy to control COVID alongside other infectious illnesses like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, which continue to kill millions. This will allow governments to focus scarce resources where they are most needed, such as reducing COVID risks, providing insecticide-treated nets to combat growing malaria incidence, or making up for lost ground with other life-saving vaccines.
The need for more robust health systems and equipment to prevent, identify, and respond to future and present infectious diseases was also emphasized at Munich. We discussed how this may help prevent future pandemics and the need for global cooperation. COVID’s effects, for example, would have been far worse if funds had not been allocated to combating other infectious diseases including HIV, TB, malaria, and polio. For decades, Pakistan, Kenya, and South Africa have worked to improve their health systems by training community health workers, increasing surveillance and lab capacity, developing efficient supply chains, and encouraging innovation.
One of the most significant tasks is to improve supply chains and increase innovation.
Although the global reaction to COVID was far from ideal, these advancements allowed some countries to pivot and defend against the virus. They also aided in reducing the impact of the pandemic on these nations’ abilities to combat other illnesses.
Take, for example, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). Wild polio infections are at an all-time low, thanks to efforts from governments, the commercial sector, and charity, and the illness is only found in two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan. I also visited Pakistan last week, where I saw two of the country’s remarkable disease-fighting command centers: the National Emergency Operations Centre for polio eradication and the National Command and Operation Centre for COVID. The NEOC employs cutting-edge information technology. The NCOC has used resources and experiences learnt from the polio program to organize Pakistan’s response to COVID, including data analysis, vaccination campaign planning, and community participation. Both centers just blew me away.
We looked at a wall of displays at the NEOC that showed an up-to-date overview of vaccination rates and places where children had not yet received the vaccine. The infrastructure of the polio effort, according to the Pakistani health professionals I spoke with, was vital after COVID hit. Pakistan was able to expand and redirect health infrastructure that had been supported by the global community—the national helpline call centre, communication systems, and networks of religious leaders and community influencers—to help protect people during the pandemic by setting priorities based on the needs at the time.
When you already have a community health team, labs, surveillance capacity, and supply chains in place, it’s easier to ramp up testing and provide vaccinations and protective gear during a pandemic. The Worldwide Fund, which finances more than half of all global initiatives seeking to eliminate AIDS, TB, and malaria, has also proven crucial during the previous two years. Community health workers who walk door to door to detect, diagnose, and report fevers as malaria or COVID were able to do so because of the Global Fund’s agreements with governments.
Similarly, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which accelerates work on infectious disease vaccines, and Gavi, which has vaccinated almost 1 billion children since 2000, have been major collaborators in creating and delivering COVID vaccines.
Regrettably, this isn’t a straightforward success storey. COVID has also resulted in rises in malaria, HIV, and TB cases and fatalities for the first time in 20 years. However, the reversal was not as severe as it may have been.
I have high hopes for the future. COVID has taught us a lot, and the developments have been incredible. Long-term support for global health—including investments in established projects like GPEI, Global Fund, and CEPI—helped save millions of lives during the epidemic, according to public health authorities in Munich and Islamabad. Consider this: it took less than a year after the virus first appeared for a vaccine to be developed. If we establish adequate global capacity, I believe we’ll do even better next time and be able to distribute them to everyone within six months of an epidemic.
We can use these lessons and make choices that help avoid future pandemics as the pandemic evolves and the globe alters strategy and investments to fit. A full-time worldwide workforce committed to reacting to emerging disease outbreaks and eradicating other infectious illnesses is required. Above all, we should approach this effort with a stronger emphasis on reducing disparities by recognising that investments in global health and pandemic preparedness are essential security challenges. They also reinforce each other.
Now is the time to build on these lessons, expand financing for public health’s foundational elements, and help nations achieve their requirements. We can put a stop to other deadly illnesses and make COVID-19 the final pandemic if we make the proper decisions and investments now.