Expert insight

How do we better prepare for future pandemics?

23 September 2021
  • Thomas Cueni Director General

With the world’s gaze focused on ramping up production and delivery of 11 billion safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine doses within a year, it is important that we turn an eye to the future.

As we need to make provisions for adequate contact tracing and access to diagnosis and treatment all around the world, disease surveillance and health system strengthening are key.

What might be missed, however, is the necessary and swift sharing of pathogens with endemic, epidemic or pandemic potential, which is governed by an international agreement stemming from the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Adding public health protection

Effective beginning 2014, the Nagoya Protocol is a legally-binding, supplementary international agreement to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This agreement steers the fair and equitable sharing of benefits when genetic resources, including plants, animals and micro-organisms, are used across country borders. Each country has a legal right to their genetic resources and can negotiate mutually agreed terms with other countries who wish to use these resources.

The challenge is that the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol has unintended and undesirable consequences for global public health. Many countries have included pathogens, such as poliovirus, Ebola virus, coronaviruses or influenza viruses, in the scope of their access and benefit sharing legislation.

Given that public health objectives are targeted at the eradication of pathogens and the CBD is aimed at the protection of biodiversity, this seems rather paradoxical, and potentially prevents sharing of samples and data on pathogens.

Iand would have led to tremendous setbacks in a historical global response to the pandemic, in tracking, preventing and treating the disease.

Establishing a path toward pandemic preparedness

We cannot simply hope that no country will apply the Nagoya Protocol to withhold pathogen data. It is too much of a risk and we have already seen some countries engaging in such “pathogen diplomacy” with MERS, Ebola, Zika and seasonal influenza over the past decade.

The devastating impact of COVID-19 and its various mutations further spotlights the need for a multilateral, legally binding solution to ensure the scientific community has access to pathogens for the development of vaccines, medicines and diagnostics.

We must leverage our experiences responding to this crisis to remove obstacles for future generations facing public health emergencies. Now, as ever before, is the time to come together to share pathogens in a timely, predictable way for surveillance, epidemiology and research purposes.

This op-ed was originally published for Media Planet’s Infectious Diseases campaign on 23 September 2021.