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24 June 2020

Would a new global body ensure the world is better prepared for the next pandemic?

The Global Virus Surveillance Organisation proposed by David Cameron may still have faced the problem of a lack of transparency from member states. 

By Stephen Bush

Although the global battle against the novel coronavirus is far from over, it won’t be the last new disease we have to defeat. David Cameron has written a column for today’s Times on how the world can be better prepared for novel pandemics in the future, proposing the creation of a bespoke global agency whose sole brief is to scan the horizon for and lead the fight against new diseases: a Global Virus Surveillance Organisation. Is he right?

Here in the United Kingdom, specific domestic mistakes have left the UK with one of the highest death tolls in the developed world, but the crisis was also aggravated by global failures. The battle against novel diseases rests on two contingencies: that governments tell the World Health Organisation everything they know as soon as they know it, and that the WHO tells everyone else, as soon as they know it. Neither happened in this case.

A novel organisation would almost certainly help in keeping an eye on the danger zones that could produce a new pandemic. The great pandemics of the modern era – HIV-Aids and the novel coronavirus – both emerged from animals. The various near-misses – variant CJD, the Zika virus, the H1N1 flu – also came from animal-to-human-transmission. And as with the novel coronavirus, the zone of maximum risk comes from unsafe agricultural practices: in the case of the novel coronavirus, from Chinese agribusiness and that country’s wet markets, but H1N1 emerged from factory farms in Mexico and spread via American agri-businesses, while mad cow disease, and with it variant CJD, spread from unsafe animal feed here in the UK. 

The WHO, inevitably, is focused on countless health challenges, partly out of necessity, partly due to the priorities of its major funders. (It’s far from clear, for example, that the WHO’s polio eradication programme was the most urgent health challenge the world faced – but it was one of great importance to some of its most influential donors.)

So it’s an idea with considerable merit. An organisation devoted solely to fighting new pandemic risks would have its eyes focused solely on potential sources of new diseases, preventing it from being distracted by one priority or another.  

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But what’s less clear is why a Global Virus Surveillance Organisation would have avoided the problems of lack of transparency from member states and by the organisation itself that the WHO grappled with at the start of this pandemic. What both the novel coronavirus, HIV-Aids, and those near-misses have in common is a lack of candour from various governments and other organisations at crucial times.

It’s not clear why the Chinese state, or a large factory farm, or any other state or organisation, will be more inclined to speak candidly to a new organisation than an old one, or how that organisation would avoid going down the same road the WHO did during this crisis. 

And that comes back to the big and unanswered question of this pandemic for the world’s democracies. Do they take the view that the Chinese state’s lack of clarity is a golden thread shared by some British farms in 1986, some Mexican farms in 2009, and by numerous states who have been far from candid about the spread of HIV-Aids among their own population? Or is there a unique China challenge that the democratic world’s policymakers will have to respond and think about, that has implications for the success of every new endeavour, well beyond the battle against novel diseases?