Can we plan for the next pandemic?

From Ron Klain, the former Ebola czar, in the Washington Post:

If it seems like the world is being threatened by new infectious diseases with increasing frequency—H1N1 in 2009-2010, MERS in 2012, Ebola in 2014, Zika in 2016, yellow fever on the horizon for 2017—that’s because it is. These are not random lightning strikes or a string of global bad luck. This growing threat is a result of human activity: human populations encroaching on, and having greater interaction with, habitats where animals spread these viruses; humans living more densely in cities where sickness spreads rapidly; humans traveling globally with increasing reach and speed; humans changing our climate and bringing disease-spreading insects to places where they have not lived previously. From now on, dangerous epidemics are going to be a regular fact of life. We can no longer accept surprise as an excuse for a response that is slow out of the gate. …

Here at home, we owe the American people an infectious-disease response effort as prompt, well-funded and effective as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at its best. We should create a Public Health Emergency Management Agency (PhEMA). And, whether it is housed in a new agency or put under the CDC or elsewhere in the Department of Health and Human Services, we should create a public health emergency fund that the president can draw down in the face of a dangerous epidemic—without waiting for Congress to act. The Zika-spreading mosquitoes are not going to wait to learn what a conference committee has decided on the Hill. Summer is coming, and Zika will be tagging along with it.

Klain’s op-ed makes a terse, compelling case for urgency when it comes to pandemic preparation. He expands on that case over at Pulse Check, Dan Diamond’s podcast at Politico. It’s mind-boggling to Klain—and to me—that pandemic response has become a partisan issue. If Zika can’t bring us together, what the hell can?

As Congress dithers, the World Bank has picked up on Klain’s suggestion. It’s trying something new and very smart to finance outbreak response. From the Financial Times:

Outbreaks of diseases such as ebola will trigger a $500m fund to help countries and health agencies fight infection after the World Bank launched the first insurance market for pandemic risk.

The aim of the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, unveiled at a G7 finance ministers meeting in Japan, is to make funds instantly available for curbing the spread of particular infectious diseases, thereby saving lives and money over the longer-term.

The primary financing mechanism for the fund is an ingenious public-private partnership. Leveraging member-states’ contributions, the World Bank will either buy pandemic insurance or sell catastrophe bonds on the private market. (Catastrophe bonds are like normal bonds, except that, if a catastrophe occurs, investors are entitled to a lower return.) In the event of a qualifying pandemic, money from bond sales and insurance pay-outs will be available to disburse. For outbreaks that don’t meet the conditions specified in the World Bank’s insurance or bond contracts, some additional funding from member-states’ contributions will be on-hand.

In other words, the World Bank is thinking creatively about how to plan for the next pandemic—even as the U.S. Congress does nothing to address the one that’s unfolding before our very eyes.


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