The Covid-19 pandemic was not an unexpected event, viral outbreaks of this kind have been predicted by medical and environmental scientists for many years.
The risk of global contagion is increasing as the world becomes more densely populated and interconnected. These risks can be minimised if governments make better preparations for pandemics, both within and between nations.
Cooperation over the production and distribution of vaccines is essential. There are wider factors at play as pandemic risk is intertwined with wider social, environmental and economic challenges.
The majority of new epidemics have zoonotic origins. This means they are caused by germs spreading from animals to humans.
Rising global demand for meat and dairy products are fuelling the destruction of forests and habitats, pushing wildlife into ever-closer proximity to people.
The extensive use of antibiotics in intensive farming is reducing their effectiveness, while climate change is also increasing the spread of animal-born diseases and displacing people into new areas that may already be densely-populated.
Lack of preparation
The Covid-19 crisis has revealed how vulnerable our economies and healthcare systems are to the threat of pandemics. In doing so it has also shown how exposed we will be to any future environmental breakdown.
Britain has been slow to respond effectively, despite extensive prior knowledge of pandemic risk and having developed sophisticated plans. This could partly be explained by a reduced capacity in government after austerity cuts to public spending and the focus on preparations for Brexit.
Health funding is under huge pressure in many low-income countries and there have been acute shortages of healthcare workers. Globally there is a mixed record of cooperation on pandemic or wider disaster risk reduction.
The pharmaceutical sector
High levels of government spending on research and development for new medicines will not always lead to affordable and effective treatments.
It is widely argued that the business models and market structures of the global pharmaceutical industry do not prioritise treating chronic conditions over developing novel drugs.
This means that prohibitive prices of medicines produced can place a strain on health service budgets, particularly in low-income countries.
The lack of focus on new drug development also plays a role in the growing threat of antibiotic resistance. This is made worse by the overuse of antibiotics in many countries and in animal agriculture.
There are few quick fixes for reducing zoonotic transmission of diseases. The causes are linked with the wider impacts of human activity on the natural world. Major global health bodies are calling for a One Health approach, with public health investment being based on the intrinsic connection between the health of people, plant and animals.
A range of policy ideas flow from this agenda. Improving food security, particularly in low-income nations, could stop international markets encouraging environmentally destructive food production.
There are growing calls for companies to do more to prevent deforestation and biodiversity loss. Reducing demand for meat and dairy products could also drastically reduce destruction of nature and improve health globally.
Proposals for improving pandemic planning focus on three areas. First, the better communication of risk, and avoiding “infodemics” of false information, to build public support for timely action.
Second, improving communication across government and ensuring that high impact, high likelihood risks like pandemics can be properly understood, planned for, and acted upon.
Third, international action in recognition of the global causes of pandemics and their disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest. Here, proposals for direct support include ensuring aid is better targeted to build healthcare workforce resilience and cancelling international debt.
Covid-19 has exposed the lack of effective collaboration on vaccine development and distribution, notably by richer governments.
Large rich countries are prioritising the development of vaccines for their own populations first, underfunding and potentially undermining global coordination efforts.
The UN’s attempt to set up an information pooling scheme to share intellectual property around vaccines has been strongly resisted by the pharmaceutical industry.