Just $5 per person a year could prevent future pandemic, says ex-WHO head

By Karen McVeigh
A sculpture by Martin Williams outside the WHO headquarters in Geneva.
A sculpture by Martin Williams outside the WHO headquarters in Geneva. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Spending $5 (£3.90) per person annually on global health security over the next five years could prevent a future “catastrophic” pandemic, according to a former head of the World Health Organization (WHO).

It would cost the world billions of dollars, but that amount would be a huge saving on the $11tn response to Covid-19, said Gro Harlem Brundtland, who, with other prominent international experts, sounded the alarm over the threat of a fast-spreading deadly pandemic last September.

The costs are based on estimates by McKinsey & Company, which found the average annual costs to prepare for pandemic over the next five years would be equivalent to $4.70 per capita.

Brundtland, co-chair of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) and a former prime minister of Norway, said there had been a collective failure to take prevention and response seriously and to prioritise it. “We are all paying the price,” she said.

Gro Harlem Brundtland
Gro Harlem Brundtland: ‘We saw the preparedness was far from what it should have been at that time.’ Photograph: Mati Milstein/The Elders

GPMB said in its inaugural report last year that the world was grossly unprepared for the threat of a global health crisis, which the board predicted could be caused by a lethal respiratory pathogen.

“We knew it was a real threat, which is why we called the alarm,” Brundtland said. “We saw the preparedness was far from what it should have been at that time.”

Coronavirus has provided a harsh test that proved them right, she said. “Because what we are in the middle of can happen again. We need to be better prepared.”

The board’s second report, published on Monday, says another pandemic is “sure to come” without strong leadership, solidarity and collective global action.

“We have created a world where a shock anywhere can become a catastrophe everywhere, while growing nationalism and populism undermine our shared peace, prosperity and security,” reads the report’s foreword.

Infectious diseases feed off divisiveness, and divisions in society can be deadly, it said.

GMPB’s members, who also include Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the US, Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, and George Gao, director general of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said global health security could not continue to be funded by development assistance.

They called for stronger support for international institutions, more responsive financial systems and for a UN summit on global health security to be convened to agree a framework to prepare and respond to future health emergencies.

They called for Covid-19 vaccines and other treatments to be allocated fairly and equitably. All countries should receive enough vaccine for at least 2% of their populations, they said.

Brundtland said it was unfortunate that Donald Trump had refused to join a global scheme set up by the WHO to distribute coronavirus vaccines.

She said: “It’s very unfortunate the US has taken these kinds of position, both with undermining the WHO and also by not sharing and participating with others in finding a common ground in how to share responsibility and do what is right.

“Here we say that every country should have a 2% coverage because that would cover health personnel and those who are very vulnerable.

“If [the vaccine] is used only in rich countries then [the virus] will continue to spread in poorer countries … and then it gets reintroduced to people in richer countries.”

The WHO scheme – known as the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility, or Covax – wants to secure 2bn doses of any successful vaccine for the world’s most vulnerable people by the end of 2021.


What is inkl?

Important stories

See news based on value, not advertising potential. Get the latest news from around the world.

Trusted newsrooms

We bring you reliable news from the world’s most experienced journalists in the most trusted newsrooms.

Ad-free reading

Read without interruptions, distractions or intrusions of privacy.