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World must prepare for deadlier outbreak than COVID-19

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) has emphasized the importance of global preparedness to tackle a disease outbreak that could be even more deadly than COVID-19. During a speech at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, Switzerland, the director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, cautioned that although the global health emergency of COVID-19 may eventually come to an end, the threat of future disease outbreaks persists. He highlighted the potential for the emergence of new variants that could lead to surges in

illnesses and fatalities. Moreover, he stressed the possibility of another pathogen emerging with even greater lethal potential.

To address these concerns, the WHO launched the International Pathogen Surveillance Network (IPSN) at the 76th meeting of the World Health Assembly. The IPSN aims to monitor and respond to emerging disease threats by utilizing genomics. Through the analysis of genetic information from viruses, bacteria, and other disease-causing organisms, scientists can identify and track diseases, develop treatments and vaccines, assess the infectiousness and severity of specific strains, and understand their modes of transmission.

The primary objective of the IPSN is to ensure that every country has access to pathogen genomic sequencing and analytics as part of its public health infrastructure. The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence will host the IPSN Secretariat, which will bring together experts in genomics and data analysis from various sectors, including governments, philanthropic foundations, multilateral organizations, civil society, academia, and the private sector.

Rajiv Shah, the president of The Rockefeller Foundation, a supporter of the IPSN, emphasized the critical role of global collaboration in pathogen genomic surveillance during the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

''IPSN builds upon this experience by creating a strong platform for partners across sectors and borders to share knowledge, tools, and practices to ensure that pandemic prevention and response is innovative and robust in the future."

According to Victoria Fan, a senior fellow in global health at the Center for Global Development, having high-quality data is crucial for effectively tracking potentially pandemic-causing pathogens and facilitating timely responses from other countries. She emphasized that ensuring accurate and timely data remains a significant challenge, as countries reporting disease outbreaks often face negative consequences. As an example, she mentioned how South Africa faced global travel bans after announcing the detection of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in late 2021.

Fan suggested that increasing positive incentives, such as providing financial support to countries for reporting, and reducing negative incentives, such as trade or travel restrictions imposed by other nations, could be helpful in encouraging timely and transparent reporting of outbreaks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently declared that COVID-19 is no longer a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, recognizing that the virus has become an established and ongoing health issue.

Analysts noted that while this decision reflects a decline in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, it could impact access to resources and national health spending priorities for low- and middle-income countries.

Several proposals aimed at strengthening the WHO's response to health emergencies, including the establishment of a global health emergency council comprising international leaders, will be discussed at the World Health Assembly (WHA), which concludes next week. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus emphasized the importance of being prepared for the next pandemic, stating that decisive, collective, and equitable actions are necessary when it arrives.

Tedros also highlighted the significant implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health-related Sustainable Development Goals, expressing concern about insufficient progress towards achieving the 2030 targets. He warned that at the current rate, less than half of the global population would have universal health coverage by 2030, emphasizing the need to double the rate of progress in order to reach the goal of health coverage for all.

The WHA, held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, is reviewing the WHO's achievements and challenges over the past year. It will also determine the budget for the next two years and address broader funding issues.


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