Can Data Surveillance Prevent The Next Pandemic?

News: Bill Gates advocates “Outbreaks are inevitable but pandemics are optional.” According to him, the next outbreak may turn out to be even more deadly and destructive. He also mentions right now is the best time to start preparing for the next virus and prevent the next pandemic.

About the status of some infectious diseases

Smallpox is the only infectious disease in human history which has been successfully eradicated. Diseases like polio, malaria and AIDS are still prevalent in society.

Note: Only Pakistan and Afghanistan still reporting polio cases.

How one can prevent pandemics according to Bill Gates?

Build Infrastructure: Building infrastructure helps to detect new infections and provides better data about existing diseases. Countries should use this infrastructure to first improve their disease surveillance of existing infections such as tuberculosis and malaria, and then repurpose the infrastructure for a new infection when it surfaces.

Doing war games for pandemics: Full-scale drills at country and global level to prepare for battling new infections. These will test the countries’ drug, diagnostic and vaccine manufacturing capacity, healthcare infrastructure, the reliability of supply chains and coordination between departments, governments and people.

He was of the opinion that unless such exercises are run, the nations will not be able to see the gaps in preparedness and repair them.

Dedicated Team: Gates emphasised involving a team of dedicated people including epidemiologists, data analysts, supply-chain experts and computer modellers whose full-time job is to detect and help the world contain a future pandemic.

He calls them the Global Epidemic Response and Mobilisation (GERM) team. 

What are the structure and functions of the GERM team in preventing pandemics?

Managed by: WHO will run this team but most of the personnel will be based at the country level.

Role of nations: The team would also be a part of the national detection and response team. This is to make the government feel that the GERM recommendations are not imposed from outside.

What are the challenges associated with Bill Gates’s approach to prevent pandemics?

Issues with Disease-specific control programmes: His idea of Disease-specific control programmes have an overall inclination to fund infrastructure for a specific disease. But this approach neglects to strengthen primary healthcare.

It is also against the proven method of targeting a lot of diseases in the first place as a much more efficient way of improving healthcare.

Overemphasis on health data: GERM team will depend more on nation-level data. But when data are not maintained properly then successful detection of outbreaks will not happen. For this reason, the GERM team is not suitable for India.

What should be done to prevent pandemics?

a) Improving the primary healthcare system, b) Improving vaccine delivery, c) Focusing on disease-prevention programmes, and d) Investing more in health.

With the increase in Covid cases in India, India needs to not forget the lessons from the Covid pandemic and to be better prepared for the next one.

Source: The post is based on the article “Can Data Surveillance Prevent The Next Pandemic?” published in “The Times of India” on 24th June 2022.

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