Stop coronavirus and the next epidemic by establishing a health security fund now

Stop coronavirus and the next epidemic by establishing a health security fund now
© getty

Here we go again. Five years after the devastating Ebola virus killed more than 11,000 people and wreaked economic havoc in West Africa, the world is grappling with the threat of another deadly epidemic with the novel coronavirus.

In the wake of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, leaders of the world’s top economies committed to help 76 countries, including many of the world’s poorest nations, to prepare for deadly outbreaks. Yet today, most of those countries remain unprepared for the novel coronavirus. 

When the G-7 meets this June at Camp David, it should translate its words into action. It is time that the leaders of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom keep their promise and partner with low-income countries, development banks, philanthropies, and private sector leaders to launch a Global Health Security Challenge Fund to make good on direct investments in preparedness.

ADVERTISEMENT

There is a cause for serious concern. If wealthy countries with strong health systems are struggling to detect, stop, and contain the novel coronavirus, imagine what will happen if the virus spreads rapidly in low-income or politically fragile countries. Low-income countries have weaker health systems, more vulnerable populations, challenges with proper infection prevention and control, less access to adequate healthcare and nutrition, vulnerable supply chains, and low influenza vaccination rates.

Indeed, containing an emerging disease like the novel coronavirus in low-income countries could be the challenge of our time.

There is some good news. Several low-income countries have taken steps in the past few years to prioritize outbreak preparedness, with support from donors like the United States government through a bump in U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding for global health security that expired last year  

Also, in Ebola’s wake, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), supported by the United States and China, opened its doors to begin to build a regional, measurable, continent-wide capability to stop outbreaks before they escalate. Yet these investments are only a down-payment – scaffolding to allow bricks and mortar to be laid. Failure to follow through and finish the construction, and the whole structure crashes down.

The global infrastructure for fighting outbreaks remains very fragile. Investments in health security are fragmented, piecemeal, and not yet mapped to specific, measurable benchmarks. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Sadly, the high level of political interest we’ve seen in understanding preparedness gaps has been met with a near-total absence of political will to finance and fill these gaps and regularly measure their improvement. With intense competing pressures, there are few incentives for low-income countries to prioritize epidemic preparedness. And compared with the global response to other health threats like HIV/AIDS, international support for low-income countries to prevent a catastrophic pandemic remains shockingly low. 

Faced with choosing between using development bank funding to address more immediate needs like roads and bridges — investments citizens want to be made right away — and investments in disease detection and response capabilities to stop a future outbreak from spreading, leaders usually choose door number one. Who can blame them?  

The novel coronavirus makes it clear that it’s past time to act. 

Leaders now should immediately invest in preparedness and launch a Global Health Security Challenge Fund, such as the one recently recommended by the CSIS Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security and the Global Health Security Index.

Here’s what should happen:

  1. Governments should urgently invest in health security now to shore up the defenses of low-income countries against the coronavirus and the inevitable next outbreak on the horizon. For the United States, this means topping up the CDC, USAID, and Defense and State Department health security accounts, investing more in the World Health Organization, the Africa CDC, and the Global Health Security Agenda. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced new funding for the Africa CDC to detect and stop the coronavirus; others should follow suit in partnership with low-income countries. Advocacy is essential to make sure preparedness remains a political priority.
  2. Before or during the 2020 G-7 meeting, leaders should launch a Global Health Security Challenge Fund that will incentivize countries to make capital investments to close their preparedness gaps. 

The fund should prioritize support for those countries most at risk, with per capita income determining eligibility for specific financing levels. This fund would pool and leverage resources from existing financing institutions, such as the World Bank, bilateral development agencies such as USAID and the United Kingdom Department for International Development, and international philanthropies to “match” commitments from governments – to invest their capital in implementing their national health security action plans, linking payments to measurable progress.  

We don’t know yet how the novel coronavirus will play out. But if this outbreak doesn’t have catastrophic consequences, the next one easily could. And the one after that. World leaders must make good on their commitments to prevent catastrophic biological events. 

As John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa CDC, said last week: “The global health chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so a disease threat anywhere can quickly become a threat everywhere.” We cannot afford to wait.

Amanda Glassman is the executive vice president of the Center for Global Development, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C. Carolyn Reynolds is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Distinguished Fellow with The George Institute for Global Health, and former vice president of policy and advocacy at PATH. Beth Cameron is vice president for Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Formerly she served as the Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense on the National Security Council staff at the White House.