Global Health Security at the World Economic Forum
The Forum is committed to managing the risks associated with emerging infectious diseases of epidemic and pandemic potential through innovative, cross-industry and cross sectorial public-private cooperation, strengthening national and global health security.
On the 100th anniversary of the 1918 influenza pandemic, it is tempting to believe the world has already witnessed the worst epidemics. With increasing trade, travel, population density, human displacement, migration and deforestation, however, as well as climate change, a new era in the risk of epidemics has begun. The number and diversity of epidemic events has been increasing over the past 30 years, a trend that is expected to intensify.
The world is poorly prepared for even modest biological threats. We are vulnerable to potentially huge impacts on individual lives, societal well-being, economic activity and national security. Meanwhile, revolutionary new biotechnologies promise miraculous advances, but also create daunting challenges of oversight and control that, if unaddressed, stand to further transform the landscape of biological risks.
Globalization has made the world more vulnerable to societal and economic impacts from infectious-disease outbreaks. One estimate of potential pandemics for the 21st century puts the annualized economic costs at $60 billion; this includes the imputed value of life-years lost. Another estimate puts the cost of pandemic influenza alone at $570 billion per year, which places it in the same order of magnitude as climate change.
Responses to past outbreaks have featured a range of innovative partnerships among businesses and civil society to complement the official response. Although there are many instructive success stories relating to public-private cooperation, efforts in this regard have typically been ad hoc, limited to traditional partners and largely initiated only after the outbreak has substantially evolved. Cooperation has also generally been challenged by uncertainty relating to communication and coordination. Accordingly, experience indicates opportunities for optimization, especially considering that reliable public-private cooperation is essential to an effective global response.
Epidemics Readiness Accelerator
There are five work streams addressing challenges to public-private cooperation, which is relied on for effective readiness.
Travel and Tourism
Improve decision-making, coordination, and communications within and between the public and private sectors, relating to risk, travel advisories and border measures.
Supply Chain and Logistics
Ensure that strategic commodities are available and accessible for public health response to outbreaks of international concern.
Legal and Regulatory
Convene public-private sector expert consultations to address the legal and regulatory barriers associated with the use of experimental products during outbreaks.
Create capacity for trusted, influential private-sector employers to readily and reliably augment public messaging; manage rumors and misinformation; and amplify credible information to support emergency public communications.
Ensure that mobile and other private-sector data is shared conveniently, available readily, and applied strategically for outbreak response.
Outbreak Readiness and Business Insight
Outbreaks and epidemics are causing more economic damage when they occur. Recent work on pandemics suggests that the potential economic losses from outbreaks of infectious disease are massive and similar in magnitude to the annual impact of climate change.
Framing economic losses on a global scale, however, has major drawbacks; it can make the problem seem too large to solve, and conceals how impacts are distributed across geographic areas and economic sectors. For the future, a proposed alternative perspective provides tailored insights on the impact of outbreaks on companies and equips them to respond appropriately. Among businesses, the risk of infectious disease is rarely emphasized in their considerations of risk. If large enterprises fully appreciate the commercial threat, they will no longer be able to justify remaining on the sidelines of efforts to strengthen global health security.
Outbreaks of infectious disease may be inevitable, but the economic damage they cause is not. Helping companies to properly understand these risks will enable them to reduce their exposure, improve their resilience and deliver on key opportunities for public-private cooperation to strengthen global health security. In doing this, companies not only act in their own commercial interests, but also help mitigate the potentially devastating impacts of infectious disease, in human and economic terms.
Economists estimate that, in coming decades, pandemics will cause average annual economic losses of 0.7% of global GDP – a threat similar in scale to that estimated for climate change. This is a level of risk that businesses can no longer afford to ignore.
The Forum and partners aim to enable business leaders to better understand the anticipated costs associated with infectious disease outbreaks and to pursue pathways for public-private cooperation. This is designed to mitigate costs and strengthen health security more broadly.
Addressing Emerging Biological Risks
There is no doubt that advances in technology hold the promise of a future that is more resilient to disease, food insecurity and environmental instability. The advent, however, of powerful biotechnologies, and increasing accessibility of information, training and equipment to develop and use them, also expands the possibility that bioscience will be misused, intentionally and unintentionally.
DNA synthesis is common-place, and the risk that nefarious actors could use this technology to create and modify biological agents has grown. To guard against this risk, some governments and companies have placed an emphasis on screening DNA synthesis orders and customers for potential illicit use. Unfortunately, the incentives, standards, and technological approaches in place for screening have not kept up with the pace and reach of DNA synthesis technology, resulting in calls for revisiting the guidance and considering alternatives to enable sustainable global oversight.
The recent synthesis of horsepox virus by Canadian scientists, with reported funding (from a private US biotechnology company) of just $100,000 has raised fresh questions from policy-makers, the public and the research community about the future of DNA synthesis as well as the strength of existing global mechanisms to screen orders and customers. To preserve safe and secure access to the DNA synthesis tools that power the biotechnology revolution, it has become essential to revisit and improve screening of gene synthesis orders against misuse.
Consistent with the Forum’s commitment to pursue innovative approaches to policy and governance in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Forum is seeking to help prevent DNA synthesis technologies from being used to make dangerous biological agents.
Strengthening Public-Private Cooperation
The Forum supports those in the public and private sectors who want to leverage its engagement platform to prepare for, and respond to, infectious disease outbreaks that have regional and global health, security, and economic implications.
Areas of work include a partnership with Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tackling the gap in research and development resources for antimicrobial resistance, and improving business engagement to eliminate malaria in Asia.