World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus today warned during a panel at the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, that the world must prepare for a future pandemic, which may be caused by a yet-unknown “Disease X.”
“You may even call COVID the first ‘Disease X.’ And it may happen again,” Tedros said during a panel discussion on “Preparing for Disease X,” which was organized by the WEF’s Centre for Health and Healthcare and linked to the WEF’s Partnership for Health System Sustainability and Resilience and its Collaborative Surveillance Initiative.
Other participants on the panel included:
Aside from “Disease X,” the panelists also discussed future pandemic prevention measures, the need for a “pandemic agreement” and the future role of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare.
“Artificial Intelligence as a Driving Force for the Economy and Society” is one of the central organizing themes of this year’s WEF meeting, taking place Jan. 15-19 in Davos, while the central theme of this year’s gathering is “Rebuilding Trust.”
More than 60 heads of state and 1,600 business leaders are among this year’s 2,800 participants, who together hail from 120 countries. In contrast with past years’ meetings, however, the WEF did not release a complete list of the meeting’s speakers — referred to by Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the WEF, as the “trustees of the future.”
The remarks by Tedros and other “Disease X” panelists came as Bill Gates — who is in Davos this week — addressed his concerns about the state of healthcare funding and his optimism about the future role of AI in healthcare.
Panelists: ‘Disease X’ a ‘clear and present danger’
Warning that “Disease X” could “result in 20 times more fatalities than the coronavirus pandemic,” the WEF panelists asked, “What novel efforts are needed to prepare healthcare systems for the multiple challenges ahead.”
According to Bishen, “There will be viruses, there will be pathogens, there will be outbreaks. The idea is how do we prepare to contain those? How do we prepare outbreaks from becoming full-blown pandemics? We have been working on this for some time actually,” he said.
Brown said the goal of today’s discussion was “to really talk about what can we and should we be doing to make sure our health systems are prepared for any future crisis that might come along that requires global collaboration and participation, and how we can be sure that we learn from the past to strengthen systems for the future.”
“Good preparation for crises happens when there is no crisis,” Demaré said. “Having a panel like this is already a great start because you have all the players of the healthcare ecosystem represented here … we have to all work together to try to address it.”
Tedros called “Disease X” a “placeholder for the unknown, but it’s not a new idea,” noting that the terminology was first used “in 2018 [and] the discussions were in 2017.”
“Disease X” is included on the WHO’s list of “priority diseases” which “pose the greatest public health risk,” along with COVID-19, Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease, Lassa fever, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Nipah and henipaviral diseases, Rift Valley fever and Zika virus.
During the discussion, Tedros and other panelists addressed concerns about the ominous tone the term “Disease X” implies.
“Of course there are some people who say, ‘oh, this may create panic,’” Tedros said. “No, it’s better actually to anticipate something that may happen because it has happened in our history many times and prepare for it. We shouldn’t face things unprepared.”
Such “preparation” includes developing “a system that can expand when the need comes,” Tedros said. “You don’t need to know that disease. There are common factors in terms of supply chain, for instance. Research and development should be at the center also … and then, of course, the health infrastructure,” he said.
Panelists said the COVID-19 pandemic provided lessons for dealing with pandemics.
“One of the big learnings during COVID was that actually you cannot treat the patient … like you would normally do because you need to isolate, you cannot touch the patient,” he said. “What are the specific means that you need to ramp up very quickly, like respiratory devices, monitors, we had of course the vaccines. How do you mobilize the supply chain globally to actually do that?”
Trindade, who recently oversaw the mandating of COVID-19 vaccines for children in Brazil, said, “We have the learnings of the pandemic, but we need some transformative forces in order to think about an effective ability to respond. She proposed “an encompassing surveillance for diseases and possible epidemics and pandemics.”
Demaré focused on the importance of “public-private partnerships” (PPPs) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What I think is important if you draw the lessons from this experience, first of all, quick action, quick decision-making, extremely important. But even more important partnerships and especially PPPs,” he said.
The WEF widely promotes the concept of public-private partnerships.
Rebel News journalist Ezra Levant asked another AstraZeneca executive, David Fredrickson, the company’s executive vice-president for its Oncology Business Unit, whether he thinks AstraZeneca did anything wrong during the COVID-19 pandemic. Levant also asked Fredrickson about the “forcible nature” under which many people were compelled to get vaccinated.
“We’re certainly proud of the efforts that collectively, the healthcare sector made,” Fredrickson responded.
Frederickson also praised public-private partnerships “as a way that progress can be made.”
Tedros: COVID vaccines ‘a model for the future’
Tedros referred to the COVID-19 vaccines as a successful example of pandemic response and said they could serve as “a model for the future.”
Reddy praised “hard” decision-making that was taken during the pandemic.
“We have been able to come out of this relatively better than what could have been anticipated and the fact that there was early intervention of vaccination, there was a lockdown,” she said. “It was hard, but it was decision-making which I think helped us. So, I think that’s important going forward.”
Andrew Lawton, a journalist with True North Media, located Tedros on the streets of Davos today and asked him if he believed “lockdown should always be rejected as a public health measure.”
Tedros, refusing to condemn lockdowns and mandates, responded, “Can we talk later?” and repeated the slogan of this year’s WEF meeting, “Rebuilding Trust.”
Tedros repeats calls for ‘pandemic agreement’
Tedros and the other panelists also emphasized the need for a “pandemic agreement.”
“The pandemic agreement can bring all the experience, all the challenges that we have faced and all the solutions into one,” Tedros said. “That agreement can help us to prepare for the future in a better way because this is about a common enemy.”
Repeating the theme of global collaboration, Tedros added, “Without a shared response, starting from the preparedness, we will face the same problem as COVID.”
Other panelists expressed similar sentiments, with Jakobs saying that “if the system closes down and everybody only focuses on their own interests … we cannot solve a global crisis.”
Tedros warned that this year’s World Health Assembly, to be held in Geneva between May 27 and June 1, likely presents the only opportunity for the WHO to reach a “pandemic agreement.”
“[The] deadline for the pandemic agreement is May 2024, and member states are negotiating,” he said. “This is between countries, and I hope they will deliver this pandemic agreement by that time on the deadline, because if this generation cannot do it … [the] incoming generation, the next generation won’t do it.”
Tedros and other panelists said there are other initiatives that have already been launched, in addition to the “pandemic agreement” that is under negotiation.
According to Tedros, these include the Pandemic Fund established by the World Bank and other organizations, the mRNA Vaccine Technology Transfer Hub in South Africa in which 15 countries are participating and the WHO Pandemic Hub.
“We also have initiatives in terms of biothreats, disease surveillance. … We have data systems that can be accessed quickly, so that [the] private sector can do their job. They can come up with the medical countermeasures, whether it’s vaccines, diagnostics or therapeutics,” Shyam said.
“We know there is a looming crisis of climate change that’s going to impact our health system. How do we respond to increased numbers of diseases, whether it’s [a] communicable disease, [a] non-communicable disease? We have to prepare the system well for that,” Shyam said.
Panelists praised potential role of AI in healthcare provision
Mirroring one of the central themes of this year’s WEF meeting, the panelists also emphasized the role of AI in the future provision of healthcare — and the need for AI to play an increasing role in healthcare.
“We have to build on technology, on data management, on artificial intelligence,” Demaré said, suggesting that AI can help in the development of a “library” of viruses and vaccines, in drug discovery and in the administration of healthcare systems.
“We saw, actually, in COVID what is possible if you look at it systematically … if you look to what technology can do,” Jakobs said, noting that AI is already playing a role in healthcare. He gave the example of MRIs, where AI “can actually predict within 24 hours, even within two weeks, if a cardiac arrest will happen.”
Jakobs also called for scaling up AI’s presence in healthcare.
“How can you then apply the latest digital technology to help [healthcare workers] in their daily jobs?” Jakobs asked. “There’s a lot of technology available, but … how do you then make sure that quickly gets into the hands of the staff of the system and you can actually scale it very rapidly?”
Gates praises role of AI in healthcare
Gates also praised AI and its potential role in healthcare delivery.
In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Tuesday, Gates said AI will make people’s lives easier, citing as an example the technology’s potential to ease the burden of paperwork for doctors, describing it as the “part of the job they don’t like” and saying “we can make that very efficient.”
Gates added that the implementation and integration of AI will be easy because there is no need for “much new hardware.” He added that the goal of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is to reduce the gap in the availability of technologies such as AI between wealthy and poor countries.
During a separate discussion as part of the WEF meeting, Gates said it was “imperative” to reduce this gap, according to The National News.
He praised the role of such technologies in fostering innovation. “There has been far too little innovation in the Global South, whether malaria or crops, wheat, rice. The amount put into that agricultural economy is much less than it should be,” Gates said.
According to CNN, “Microsoft has a multibillion-dollar partnership with OpenAI. Gates remains one of Microsoft’s largest shareholders.” OpenAI CEO Sam Altman is a participant at this year’s WEF meeting.
He noted that one of the major focus areas of the Gates Foundation is “reducing inequities in health by funding the development of new tools and strategies to reduce the burden of infectious diseases and the leading causes of child mortality in low-income countries.”
Gates claimed that the foundation’s work helped halve worldwide child deaths between 2000 and 2022, and HIV and malaria deaths over the past two decades.
Christopher Elias, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, was confronted by Levant in Davos on Monday. Elias declined to answer questions about Gates’ role in the Event 201 coronavirus pandemic simulation in 2019, his work in India and his involvement in vaccine development.
Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D., based in Athens, Greece, is a senior reporter for The Defender and part of the rotation of hosts for CHD.TV's "Good Morning CHD."
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