By the bioMérieux Connection Editors
In September of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) published a report with a warning—our risk of a global pandemic was on the rise, and the world was not prepared. Three months later, in December 2019, the first COVID-19 cases were reported to the World Health Organization. By March 2020, the majority of the world was in lock-down amid the rapidly spreading pandemic, and the lack of global preparedness had become abundantly clear.
Scientists, doctors, and other health experts have been sounding the alarm about the risk of a global pandemic for years, and the WHO/GPMB report was just the latest among many reports that have called for attention and resources to address the growing threat of infectious disease. The grim reality we face now—more than 100 million cases and over 2 million deaths worldwide—could pale in comparison to future pandemics if we do not work to mitigate risks and properly prepare.
In the forward of the report, Co-Chairs Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland and Mr. Elhadj As Sy write that, “there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy.” They go on to paint a dismal picture of the global response to infectious disease threats. “For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: we ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides,” they say.
In some respects, the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen as a global “stress test” of pandemic response and preparedness—one that has exposed the many weaknesses and vulnerabilities in our systems. So far, the human toll has remained far below the 50 to 80 million lives that the report warns of, but that only serves to highlight how much worse a pandemic could be.
While the last catastrophic respiratory infection pandemic occurred in 1918, killing 675,000 people in the US and at least 50 million worldwide, we have experienced devastation from other types of pathogens in the intervening years—HIV/AIDS and Ebola, to name two. COVID-19 has killed over 440,000 people in the US—for comparison, H1N1, also known as swine flu, reached pandemic status in 2009, but it killed 12,469 people in the US and an estimated 151,700 – 575,400 people globally. Additionally, SARS and MERS, both caused by types of coronaviruses, were effectively contained and did not lead to global pandemics. Some pathogens, including malaria and tuberculosis, continue to exact an enormous toll in human lives every day. But as we struggle to fight those diseases, new ones arise.
It is critical that we do not fall into the “cycle of panic and neglect” that the GPMB report discusses. Understanding the factors that contribute to or create risks and identifying long-term strategies and resources will be required to prepare for and ideally prevent future pandemics.
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