At the beginning of the movie Outbreak, there’s a scene where three government virologists arrive by helicopter at a remote village. Most of the village has recently died from Ebola-like symptoms. Wearing protective moon suits while triumphant music plays in the background, our heroes immediately get to work trying to contain the threat before it hurts anyone else. It’s an inspiring scene.
Unfortunately, it’s pure Hollywood fiction.
A full-time team like this doesn’t exist in real life—yet. I’m hoping this changes soon, because it is one of the most important things we can do to prevent the next pandemic.
Today, there are many organizations that work hard to respond to a major epidemic, but their efforts are largely dependent on volunteers. The best known is the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, or GOARN, which does heroic work but doesn’t have the staffing, funding, or global mandate to tackle every threat.
We need a permanent organization of experts who are fully paid and prepared to mount a coordinated response to a dangerous outbreak at any time. In my book, I propose that we call this group the GERM—Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization—team.
The GERM team would be made up of people from all over the world who have a wide range of expertise: epidemiology, genetics, data systems, diplomacy, rapid response, logistics, computer modeling, communications, and more. When they aren’t actively working in the field, most of them would call individual countries’ public health agencies home base, though some would sit in the WHO’s regional offices and at its headquarters in Geneva. (I talked about GERM at length in my TED talk last month.)
It's important that GERM have a diverse workforce. The team is going to serve the entire world—it only makes sense that its members reflect the experiences and backgrounds of the people they’re going to work with. Ideally, GERM would have a high number of local experts from countries at a higher risk of outbreak, and outsiders would only show up when necessary and when the in-country team requests help.
Here’s how a GERM response would work: The team’s disease monitoring experts would look for potential outbreaks. Once it spots one, GERM should have the ability to declare an outbreak and work with national governments and the World Bank to raise money for the response very quickly. Product-development experts would advise governments and companies on the highest-priority drugs and vaccines. People who understand computer modeling would coordinate the work of modelers around the world. And the team would help create and coordinate responses, such as how and when to implement border closures and recommend mask use.
But GERM’s response to an active outbreak is only one part of their work.
The team’s most important job is helping to run outbreak response exercises that test whether the world is ready for the next major outbreak. Militaries regularly run war games to evaluate their readiness—we should do the same with disease threats. In most countries, these exercises can be run by local public health and military leaders, with GERM acting as an advisor and reviewer. For some low-income countries, the world should invest in building this capacity and lend resources as needed.
You can learn more about what these germ games would look like by reading chapter 7 of How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, which is available as a free download for all Gates Notes Insiders.
The GERM team would also be responsible for developing a checklist for pandemic preparedness, similar to the ones that airplane pilots follow before every takeoff and many surgeons now use during an operation. A checklist sounds like such an obvious tool, but very few places had a plan like this in place when COVID hit. A GERM-developed checklist could be used anywhere and help make sure that governments are ready with an efficient and effective response.
But GERM’s impact won’t be limited to stopping pandemics. The group will improve overall health around the world, especially in the poorest countries.
Emerging diseases will always be their top priority, but when there isn’t an active pandemic threat, the team will keep their skills sharp by helping out with deadly diseases like polio and malaria. For example, they could work alongside public health workers in Nigeria to help distribute millions of doses of the oral polio vaccine every year to keep the country polio-free. This would both save a lot of kids from needless suffering and help the GERM team build relationships with communities they will need if an outbreak strikes. Now that’s what I call getting your money’s worth!
Running GERM will cost the world around $1 billion a year to cover salaries for the force of 3,000 people we’d need, plus equipment, travel, and other expenses—money that would come from governments. The work would be coordinated by the WHO, the only group that can give it global credibility, and it needs to be accountable to the public.
When Hollywood gets something wrong, the result is usually pretty silly and unrealistic. But movies like Outbreak nailed it when they imagined a global disease-fighting team who is ready to respond to a crisis on a moment’s notice. If we’re going to make sure that COVID-19 is the last pandemic, we need the GERM team.