Imagine that there is a small fire in your kitchen.
The fire alarm activates and warns everyone nearby of the danger.
Someone calls the emergency number.
A staff member takes the body temperature of schoolchildren at a kindergarten that has resumed operation following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Yongzhou, Hunan province, China.
China Daily via REUTERS
You try to put out the fire, maybe you even have a fire extinguisher under the sink.
If it doesn't work, you now know how to evacuate the place safely.
By the time you get out, a fire truck is already arriving.
Firefighters use the hydrant in front of your house to put out the flames before your neighbors' houses are at risk of catching fire.
We must prepare to fight disease outbreaks the same way we prepare to fight fires.
If a fire is left to burn out of control, it poses a threat not just to one home, but to an entire community.
The same is true of
, but on a much larger scale.
As we well know from COVID-19, an outbreak in one city can quickly spread across a country and then around the world.
World Health Organization
(WHO) first described COVID-19 as a pandemic just over three years ago, it marked the culmination of a
to prepare for pandemics, despite numerous warnings.
And I worry that we are making the same mistakes again.
The world has not taken as many preventative measures for the next pandemic as I would hope.
However, it is not too late to
prevent history from repeating itself.
The world needs a
that is ready to spring into action as soon as danger arises.
We need a fire department for pandemics.
I am optimistic about a network that the WHO and its partners are creating called the
Global Health Emergency Corps.
This network of the world's leading leaders in health emergencies will work together to prepare for the next pandemic.
Just as firefighters hold drills to practice responding to a fire, the Emergency Corps plans to hold
to practice responding to outbreaks.
The exercises will ensure that everyone – governments, health professionals, first responders – knows what to do when a potential outbreak arises.
One of the body's most important tasks will be to act quickly to
stop the spread of a pathogen.
to act requires countries to have large-scale testing capabilities to identify potential threats in good time.
Environmental monitoring, such as wastewater testing, is key, as many pathogens appear in
If a sewage sample tests positive, a rapid response team would deploy to the affected area to find people who may be infected, carry out a response plan, and provide necessary community education on what symptoms to look for and how to stay protected.
As COVID-19 has shown, a pandemic is a
and mitigating this difficulty should not depend on volunteers.
We need a body of professionals from all countries and regions, and the world must find a way to reward them for the time they spend preparing for and responding to transnational threats.
They must be able to deploy teams of professionals who are on standby to help
control outbreaks where they start.
For this to be successful, the Emergency Corps must build on existing networks of expertise and must be led by people such as heads of national public health agencies and their epidemic responders.
It is difficult for a country alone to stop the spread of a disease;
many of the most significant actions require coordination at the highest levels of government.
The world needs to prepare for a multi-alarm fire, the kind of fire response that requires different units and departments.
These types of fires are rare, but when they do occur there is no time to waste.
Local emergency services need to know that they can count on a group of well-trained firefighters who will work together seamlessly.
They can't arrive on scene and find that their hoses won't fit into the nearest hydrant or that they have a completely different strategy than the other units.
The Emergency Corps will ensure that countries and health systems are
before an emergency, so that everything runs smoothly in times of crisis.
This is where
practice makes perfect.
By conducting drills and simulations, the corps will discover the areas where countries and leaders are not ready and help us fix them now.
It is also important to practice responding to several different types of pathogens.
Human respiratory diseases are a major concern as they can become global very quickly.
(Just look at how fast COVID-19 spread.)
However, they are far from the only threat.
What if the next pathogen with pandemic potential is spread via droplets on surfaces?
Or if it is transmitted sexually like HIV?
What if it is the result of
Each scenario requires a different response and the Emergency Corps can help the world prepare for all of them.
We cannot afford to be caught off guard again.
The world must take action now to ensure that COVID-19 becomes the last pandemic, and one of the most important steps we can take is to support the world's leading health experts—the WHO—and invest in the Corps. Global Health Emergencies so you can reach your full potential.
For this, you will need two things:
First, public health leaders from all countries must participate.
The next pandemic could strike anywhere, so the First Responder must draw experience from all corners of the planet, including national disease and research agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of United States Health.
Second, we need the richest countries to step up and
provide the funds
to make this a reality.
I believe WHO remains our best tool to help countries stop disease outbreaks and the Global Health Emergency Corps will go a long way towards a pandemic-free future.
The question is whether we have the foresight to invest in that future now before it is too late.
c.2023 The New York Times Company
c.2023 The New York Times Company
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