On 4 May 2022 we hosted an online expert dialogue on the role of data, surveillance and Intelligence in Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The dialogue was moderated by Johanna Hanefeld, head of the Centre for International Health Protection at the Robert Koch Institute. Answers were given by Chikwe Ihekweazu, head of the newly founded WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.
Why do we need better data for pandemic preparedness and response?
According to Johanna Hanefeld, Health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, but also other outbreaks have demonstrated, how crucial it is to have the right data at the right time in order to respond to a disease outbreak. While new technologies advance the possibilities around data harvesting and analysis, the development of these novel technologies has been unequal across countries. Moreover, the information gathered is often biased, so that evidence alone is not sufficient to enable better decisions. So, where do these diverse developments lead us, how can we ensure the information we gather might prevent pandemics or enable decision-makers to react fast and accordingly, and what is the role of the new WHO Hub on pandemic preparedness and intelligence?
A hub for pandemic preparedness and intelligence, what is it for and why do we need it?
We have all gone through the pandemic together - We have lived through an incredibly difficult period. Now, we continuously think about how, when, and where new variants might emerge and how these might affect countries and people around the world, says Chikwe Ihekweazu. The last two years also showed how the importance of policy advise has increased crucially in order to react and contain the pandemic. For this reason, the WHO hub aims to collate available information and to connect and modernize existing data systems so that measures can be taken timely and collaboratively. To enable this, it is important to build a “trust” architecture for global health and to collaborate with institutions from national, regional, and local levels around the world.
What are the main pillars of the Hub, and how could we work better together on sharing data?
The main three pillars of the Hub are: creating activities for connection among various institutions and actors, fostering innovation, and strengthening what already exists. For instance, epidemic intelligence from open source is relatively new, and has been useful for preparedness and response, but poses the risk of misinformation. It is therefore necessary to apply a logical thinking framework to understand where the information is coming from, how it is being used and what impact it could have. Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu recommends the development of a common strategy on how to engage with data. The assumption that others might be unwilling to share data, is often misleading as the real limitation in data-sharing lies in unaligned systems and a lack of a common language. We have started to develop a set of rules and principles, or taxonomy, and the better we get at defining it, the easier data-sharing becomes. Transdisciplinarity is important in this regard, colleagues and institutions from different spheres are needed, not just epidemiologists and data scientists, but also social scientists and other experts, including the private sector.
How are we doing in terms of One Health, and how prepared are we for the next pandemic?
The term “One Health” has been fashionable for a long time, but it is difficult to implement when we function in bubbles: In fact, almost every public health threat was linked to a zoonotic disease, and yet we did not have the means to monitor this, nor to share data. Now these times have changed. The expansion of laboratory capacity, genomics, knowledge on viruses and how they evolved is one of the biggest benefits from the COVID-19 pandemic. The investments and resource mobilization made in low- and middle-income countries would not have been possible before but have helped us to be better prepared. Nevertheless, we still have a long distance to cover, and the Hub is open to work together with actors in the field of one health, but also in other fields. “We need to think of this as a sort of echo-system, where we cannot advance in one area, without the other”, the head of the WHO Hub in Berlin states. A global network approach helps to build capacities worldwide which are sustainable and locally embedded to ensure data is not taken out of its context, but aids in collectively evolving as a community to prevent future pandemics. After all, “this is a hub for the world, it just happens to be in Berlin”, its work should have value for colleagues advising leadership around the world.
The recording of the event can be found here.