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WHO aims for ‘transformation’ with launch of pandemic data hub


Governments’ willingness to share data will determine initiative’s success, say leaders

The Covid-19 pandemic took the world by surprise, despite years of warnings of the terrible potential of a new infectious disease to spread rapidly via international transport links and in crowded cities.

Now, the World Health Organization is aiming to ensure that global leaders are never again caught napping during the early stages of a disease outbreak, with the launch of a hub for pandemic and epidemic intelligence. 

The hub, to be based in Berlin, will bring together countries and institutions with the goal of developing tools and predictive models for risk analysis and to monitor disease control measures, social responses and disinformation.

“The current Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that we can only fight pandemics and epidemics together,” German chancellor Angela Merkel said at the unveiling on 4 May.

Although it will be hosted and initially funded by Germany, the hub will be a global endeavour, said Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, in which the hub will be situated. “This is not a hub in Germany per se—this is a global hub,” he stressed.

Data sharing

Ryan struck an upbeat tone about global interest in the hub, saying the WHO had received “a hugely positive response”, including in talks with the G7 group of leading industrial countries.

But he warned that its success would hinge on the extent to which countries were willing to be forthcoming in sharing data with their neighbours. “There are many problems to solve here, and issues around transparency and accountability cannot necessarily be solved by new technologies,” Ryan said.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said that “rapid and reliable information” was “essential” in every area of health, but “especially” in pandemics.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already spurred unprecedented levels of collaboration and data sharing among researchers, who raced to understand the spread of the disease and develop treatments and vaccines.

It also sparked the opening up of research outputs, with publishers including the Royal Society, eLife, Hindawi, PeerJ, PLOS and F1000 Research urging article reviewers to assess papers quickly and publishers to make content available “as rapidly as possible”.

For the hub to succeed, governments will have to take similar measures, leaders said at the launch. German health minister Jens Spahn urged fellow politicians to take up the mantle. “A hub like the one we have planned…can only be as good as we, as national states, let [it] be,” he said. “Only if we give information, only if we are transparent and share our information with the WHO and other national states, can we make a difference.”

Spahn said that WHO member countries would need to undertake “reforms” to demonstrate their “willingness and readiness” to share data with each other in preparation for future disease outbreaks.

Gathering the worlds best minds

The speakers also revealed details about the makeup of the hub. Ryan said its ability to take on more staff was limited for the time being because of constraints “at secretariat level”, but that he did foresee an “expansion of staff” in the future. Even so, he added that the hub was not intended to become a large organisation.

“The vision is not to create another big, bureaucratic WHO institution somewhere,” said Ryan. “This is about transforming the way this organisation engages with the world.”

Instead, he said the hub would become a gathering place for the world’s best minds, attracting scientists for short-term stays, for instance as visiting fellows—similar to the model used by Cern, the European organisation for nuclear research.

But first, global partners will need to engage, said Ryan: “Ultimately, it is up to our member states to decide on what the rules of the game are regarding transparency and regarding accountability.”

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe