Last week, I traveled to Germany to attend the 58th Munich Security Conference, a gathering of leading experts on global security, health, development, and international relations. After learning from and working with so many of them virtually for two years, I was eager to hear from heads of state and global health leaders—in person at last!—about the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on their countries, the infectious disease and inequity challenges they’re still contending with, and what we need to be doing now to prevent future pandemics.
Health security was already a big priority at the MSC in pre-COVID times, but this year’s conference underlined how much global health is now rightfully seen as a serious national and global security issue. It’s clearer than ever that investing in health R&D, disease surveillance, and strong health systems is critical to keeping people safe, wherever they live in the world.
In Munich, I took part in a panel discussion that included the foreign ministers of Canada and Sweden, the CEO of the Crisis Group, and remarks from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of World Health Organization. These leaders hit on the same themes I heard from many others I talked with on this trip—themes I’ve given a lot of thought to while writing a book about how to prevent the next pandemic. For one, when it comes to COVID, we’re not out of the woods yet, because the virus is still mutating. At the same time, the pandemic is evolving, with vaccines plus the rapid spread of Omicron appearing to offer many more people some protection against severe disease. Meanwhile, COVID continues to exacerbate existing inequities—something we’ll feel the effects of for years to come.
In all countries, especially the poorest, the pandemic is still hindering the prevention and treatment of other diseases. The world’s response must continue prioritizing equity and protecting the most vulnerable. We need an integrated approach that manages COVID for the long haul alongside other infectious diseases such as HIV, TB, and malaria, which continue to kill millions. This will enable countries to take limited resources and apply them where they are needed most, whether by mitigating COVID risks, supplying insecticide-treated nets against rising malaria cases, or making up for lost ground with other life-saving vaccinations.
Another theme that came up in Munich is the need for stronger health systems and tools to prevent, detect, and respond quickly to emerging and existing infectious diseases. We discussed how this can prevent future pandemics and what role multilateral cooperation must play. For example, the effects of COVID would have been much worse without investments made to fight other infectious diseases like HIV, TB, malaria, and polio. For decades, countries like Pakistan, Kenya, and South Africa have strengthened their health systems by training community health workers, building surveillance and lab capacity, creating efficient supply chains, and accelerating innovation.
The world’s response to COVID was far from perfect, but these advances helped put some countries in a better position to pivot and defend against the virus. And they helped mitigate the pandemic’s impact on these countries’ ability to fight other diseases.
Take the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Thanks to investments made by governments, the private sector, and philanthropy, wild polio cases are at a historic low, and the disease is endemic in just two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last week I also went to Pakistan, where I visited two of the country’s innovative command centers for fighting diseases, the National Emergency Operations Center for polio eradication and the National Command and Operation Centre for COVID. The NEOC uses state-of-the-art informational tools developed by GPEI to track polio so that no child is ever paralyzed by it again. The NCOC has applied resources and lessons learned from the polio program—including data analysis, vaccine campaign planning, and community engagement—to coordinate Pakistan’s response to COVID. Both centers blew me away.
At the NEOC, we pored over a wall of screens that displayed an up-to-the-minute summary of immunization rates and areas where children have not been reached with the vaccine. The health officials I talked to in Pakistan told me that the polio program’s infrastructure was invaluable once COVID hit. By setting its priorities based on the needs at the time, Pakistan was able to expand and redirect health infrastructure that had been supported by the global community—the national help line call center, communication systems, and networks of religious leaders and community influencers—to help protect people during the pandemic.
It’s easier to ramp up testing and deliver vaccines and protective gear during a pandemic when you already have a community health workforce, labs, surveillance capacity, and supply chains in place. Another organization that has proven invaluable over the last two years is the Global Fund, which funds more than half of all global programs working to end AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The Global Fund’s partnerships with countries enabled community health workers who go door to door to detect, diagnose, and report fevers as malaria or COVID. Along the same lines, organizations like the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, which accelerates work on vaccines for infectious diseases, and Gavi, which has immunized nearly 1 billion children since 2000, have been key partners in developing and distributing COVID vaccines.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a simple success story. We’ve also seen increases in cases and deaths from malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis for the first time in 20 years because of COVID. But the backsliding was not nearly as bad as it could have been.
I’m optimistic about the future. We have learned so much from COVID, and the innovations have been tremendous. Talking to public health leaders in Munich and Islamabad, it’s clear that long-term funding for global health—including investments in proven initiatives like GPEI, Global Fund, and CEPI —helped save millions of lives during this pandemic. Just think: It took less than a year after the virus emerged to develop a vaccine against it. I believe we’ll do even better next time and can deliver them to everyone within six months of an outbreak if we build enough global capacity.
As the pandemic continues to evolve and the world adapts strategies and investments to match, we can apply these lessons and make choices that help prevent future pandemics. We need a full-time global team dedicated to responding to new disease outbreaks and working to end other infectious diseases. We should, above all, approach this work with a greater focus on improving inequities by understanding that investments in global health and pandemic prevention are critical security issues. And they’re mutually reinforcing.
Now is the time to build on these lessons, increase our funding for the basic building blocks of public health, and support countries in meeting their needs. If we make the right choices and investments now, we can end other devastating diseases and make COVID-19 the last pandemic.