Wellme Trust: Fighting pandemics should be funded 'like the military' ()

Jeremy Farrar will be speaking at WIRED Health 2016 on 29 April in London. From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector.

Governments around the world need to invest in defending against pandemics such as Ebola and Zika in the same way they invest in the military, says the head of biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust.

"We spend gazillions to defend ourselves from military attacks, but from the beginning of the twentieth century far more people have died from infection. We are hugely vulnerable from a public health perspective," explains Jeremy Farrar, an expert on infectious diseases.

Funding such defences cannot be left in the hands of private companies, he argues, just as we don't expect the free market to fund aircraft carriers.

"This is public health. Private pharmaceutical companies will make – quite rightly – decisions based on potential commercial return. This has to be incentivised by governments, taxpayers and philanthropy, then industry has to be persuaded that it's in their interest. Otherwise we are leaving a potentially disastrous situation in the hands of the marketplace."

Farrar, who is speaking at WIRED Health on 29 April, described sudden outbreaks of diseases with no known vaccines or treatments as the new normal.

"We've had Ebola for the last two to three years, now Zika. Since 1998 I've been involved in about eight major epidemics including SARS and bird flu. This is the new world. These are not rare events," Farrar explains.

Diseases are more likely to spread these days because of a number of factors. Firstly, the world is more connected, which means people travel more frequently. Secondly, increasingly dense populations mean more interactions between humans and animals, where most diseases originate. Climate change also plays a role, with rising temperatures and humidity providing the perfect breeding ground for disease carriers.

"With no drugs, no vaccines and no diagnostic tests, an outbreak goes from being a relatively small affair to 30,000 people," he adds, referring to Ebola in West Africa, which quickly claimed more than 11,300 lives.

While Zika is less deadly than Ebola, its long-term effects on unborn babies are not clear. Around 20 per cent of people infected with the virus become ill, with symptoms including fever, rash, headaches and joint pain. The virus has also been linked to a spike in babies born with microcephaly, a congenital condition that causes incomplete brain development. The risk of this neurological disorder has forced governments in Jamaica and Latin America to advise women against getting pregnant.

There is currently no vaccine or medication to treat Zika infections. Symptoms are treated with fluids, rest and pain relief. "It's spread across a whole continent and it's likely to invade the United States. Then it's highly likely to spread around the world and we have no method to control it," Farrar says.

"There won't be 11,000 deaths, but if you had a whole generation of babies born with developmental delays that would be a disaster."

Just as we've learnt that Ebola can be sexually transmitted and cause long term mental and eye problems, Farrar predicts that more complications will be discovered with Zika.

"We've learned lessons from Ebola and we hoped to have a couple of years to put in place some changes, but Ebola hasn't finished yet. There are still outbreaks happening today. And while that's going on we've got to deal with Zika. It's not impossible to imagine there might be a third thing happening in Asia," he explains.

Farrar cites Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) as another example of a virus we are "completely unprepared" for. The illness was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to several other countries, with many patients dying. Tackling these diseases requires being smarter about diagnosis, gathering data, sharing information and developing vaccines more quickly and in a more collaborative way.

"We have a list of 20 to 25 diseases we know about today for which we have no interventions and we could focus on. But we don't have the visibility," he explains, acknowledging the "Rumsfeldesque" nature of his comment. Public health organisations must also prepare to deal with entirely new threats, citing HIV as an example of a "completely unknown virus that we'd never seen before". 

Beyond the human cost, there is a massive financial cost to epidemics and pandemics, estimated at $60 billion (£42.17 billion) annually. Many of these costs fall on the private sector, through increased insurance claims and a fall in tourism. "The impacts on societies if we don't get prepared in terms of business disruption and economic loss, are huge," Farrar says.  

But things are changing, he says. "The sharing of information is getting better and there's a movement towards developing vaccines quicker and making sure all of the potential interventions we could need are going to be available. But we're not there yet."

Jeremy Farrar will be speaking at WIRED Health 2016 on 29 April in London. From helping humans live longer and hacking our performance, to repairing the body and understanding the brain, WIRED Health will hear from the innovators transforming this critical sector.

Now in its third year, tickets are still available for this incredibly popular one-day event. Discounts are available for NHS and government employees and for people working for health sector startups.

Leave a Reply

Captcha image