WHO Global Data Hub To Help Fight Future Pandemics
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

The World Health Organization and the German government on Wednesday announced the launch of a new Global Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence that aims to harness the world of big data, media and epidemiological reports to more rapidly identify and respond to emerging disease risks.  

The hub, to be launched in Berlin later this year, would bring together scientists, data experts and other know-how from governments, international organizations and the private sector, in new, and more flexible forms of collaboration, WHO’s Director of Health Emergencies, Mike Ryan, said at a press briefing on Wednesday. 

Launch of the hub is being supported by €30 million in seed funds from the German government, said officials at the briefing, addressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Health Minister Jens Spahn.

“The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence can make a difference for a safer future…(we should focus on) the development of a global data ecosystem to produce timely insights and tools for policymakers, before and after an epidemic and pandemic events,” Spahn said.

The hub would help gather data more efficiently to predict, prevent and respond to future pandemics and epidemic risks worldwide, said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“One of the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic is that the world needs a significant leap forward in data analysis to help leaders make informed public health decisions,” Tedros said. 

“This requires harnessing the potential of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, combining diverse data sources, and collaborating across multiple disciplines. Better data and better analytics will lead to better decisions,” he said.

Faster Identification of Threats and Responses

Some of the first SARS-COV-2 cases emerged around Wuhan’s “wet markets” selling wild animals for slaughter and meat consumption; such markets can be a flashpoint for pathogen transmission to humans.

The initiative responds to a key issue raised by WHO member states and independent reviewers regarding the initial stages of  COVID-19 pandemic response – and the belated recognition of the SARS-CoV2 outbreak that was now obviously simmering in Wuhan throughout the fall of 2019 – and possibly even spreading then to other countries, such as Italy, where COVID-positive serum samples from the period were later identified.

Even so, the first Chinese government and media reports of the mysterious pneumonia-like outbreak in Wuhan were only picked up on 31 December, 2019 – by WHO’s China country office as well as by the WHO EIOS (Epidemic Intelligence Open Sources) platform – which noted a report from ProMED, the International Society for Infectious Diseases.  

Following that, criticism has also been leveraged against the quality of data collection by WHO, China and other member states reflecting the early days of the pandemic spread  – which may have contributed to WHO’s delays in declaring an international public health emergency over the virus – which so far has killed over 3.2 million people worldwide. 

Although not “new”, the idea of a hub, according to Tedros, coalesced during discussions with Merkel in October 2020 about the creation of a centre that would serve as a global nerve centre to enhance global capacity for pandemic and epidemic intelligence.

Merkel, in a video message, said that the COVID-19 pandemic “has taught us that we can only fight pandemics and epidemics together”.

“The new WHO Hub will be a global platform for pandemic prevention, bringing together various governmental, academic and private sector institutions,” Merkel said, further welcoming WHO’s decision to base the hub in Berlin.

The hub will bring together governmental, academic and private sector institutions to harness global data, surveillance and analytics and will involve a global collaboration of countries and partners to look for pre-signals that go beyond current systems that monitor publicly available information for signs of emerging outbreaks.

Build Upon EIOS – CERN-like Model For Cooperation 

WHO’s Director of Health Emergencies, Mike Ryan

Ryan said that the hub would not be about creating another “big bureaucratic WHO institution” but rather a transformed and engaging centre.

He said that WHO envisages the platform as functioning similar to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research – an iconic Geneva-area institution that brings together research fellows, visiting scholars and other experts for brief stints,  where they can share and apply their knowledge and skills. 

“It’s about creating a platform with Germany, where everyone can come and contribute. And this becomes a facilitating environment. We bring the best minds, we bring the best ideas and we facilitate that with the infrastructure and the tools and all of the things that we need…(to) allow others to take the real innovative steps to move us forward in this regard,” Ryan added. 

He said that the hub would build upon the networks created by EIOS – in a more sophisticated model – to become operational from September. 

Germany has offered a seed fund of €30 million annually as a startup for the hub, with WHO still working on further details of the budget, he added. .

Appeals for further funding are being discussed with various potential donors at the G7 level, said Ryan.

Berlin “Ideal Location” for Global Hub

German Health Minister Jens Spahn

Merkel said Berlin was an ideal location for the hub as it already had leading players in the digital and health fields, such as the Robert Koch Institute, the German federal government’s scientific research institution.

“If that expertise is now supplemented by the WHO Hub, we will create a unique environment for pandemic and health research here in Berlin — an environment from which important action-oriented insights will emerge for governments and leaders around the world,” she said.

Emphasising that the new hub would still fall under WHO’s governance, Spahn said Germany was offering an “enabling environment for the inter linkages between public health and digital players”.

“We are very confident that this local environment will provide numerous opportunities for synergies with a new double edge  for the hub,” Spahn said, echoing Tedros’ sentiments that there was a clear need for stronger early local warning alerts and emergency response system  to help improve public health intelligence and risk analysis.

Transparent Data is Imperative

WHO affirmed that data from the new global hub will be held openly and transparently.

While affirming that data, in principle, should be held openly and transparently, Ryan acknowledged that it will still be up to the member states and the rules of the International Health Regulations to decide how, and with whom, to share verified information. 

“The aim is to bring together partners from around the world to develop better access to data and to develop tools we need to generate the insights we need before, during and after pandemics. But, also to build  trust between partners in sharing that data in sharing those insights. We aim to bring that whole process together,” Ryan said.

He acknowledged, however, that access to data as well as tools for generating insight from such data is not evenly distributed across the member states.  And the hub would try to address those inequalities, as well. 

“I can assure you that that’s the point of the centre… to democratize that process, bring more parameters and create facilities, translate trends and transformative technologies on the capabilities to our member states.”

However, issues around transparency and accountability will not be solved by new technologies, but by building trust between partners in sharing data and insights, Ryan added.

Three independent panels are due to report at the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA)on how the WHO and member states reacted to the pandemic, and propose reforms in rules and procedures.

Effectively the creation of the hub leapfrogs over what is likely to be highly politicized deliberations on those reforms at the WHA – to create at least one fait accompli that would support earlier warnings.   

Image Credits: Breaking Asia, UCT.

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