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Governments and industry should invest as much on preparing for pandemics as they have on Covid-19 research to avoid costly lockdowns, the chair of a body aiming to boost preparations for future health crises has warned.
The G7-backed 100 Days Mission was set up in 2021 to focus efforts on producing tests, treatments and vaccines at scale within 100 days of a new pandemic being declared by the World Health Organization.
But four years after the outbreak of Covid-19, Mona Nemer, the chair of the mission’s steering group, said pandemic preparedness was being taken “for granted”. She urged countries and the pharmaceutical sector to boost funding to tackle nine other high-risk pathogens identified as threats by the WHO.
“If the economy is shut down for another year, it’s going to [cost] hundreds of billions,” Nemer, who is Canada’s chief science adviser, told the Financial Times. “The economic crises we are going through are, at least in part, brought upon us by the pandemic . . . we can’t afford to have an additional crisis.”
Between 2014 and 2022, more than $18.7bn was invested in research and development to tackle WHO priority diseases, according to Policy Cures Research, a global health NGO, for the 100 Days Mission. Vaccines received $11.3bn, compared with $6.2bn for therapeutics research and $1.3bn for diagnostics research.
The vast majority — nearly $14.5bn in funding — was directed towards tackling Covid-19 since 2020. There is a full set of treatments, tests and vaccines for just two pathogens on the WHO’s priority list: Covid-19 and the Zaire Ebola virus strain.
There are no approved products for two pathogens on the WHO’s list: severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), a virus identified after an outbreak in China in 2003 that spread to four other countries, and Marburg, a virus with similar haemorrhagic symptoms to Ebola, which spreads to humans from fruit bats.
Nemer said committing to funding levels of $10bn-$15bn for R&D would be justified to tackle other pathogens.
Her comments come ahead of a conference in Rome on Wednesday that will discuss a new report on the 100 Days Mission’s progress. The mission is part of the International Pandemic Preparedness Secretariat, an independent body that works with the G7 on global health resilience. Italy assumed the G7 presidency at the start of the year.
Half of the $18.7bn spent on R&D to tackle priority diseases between 2014 and 2022 was provided by the US government. The reliance on US funding was a “major vulnerability” that leaves pandemic preparedness “very sensitive” to political upheavals, the 100 Days Mission report said.
In 2020, former Republican president Donald Trump moved to withdraw the US from the WHO because of concerns over its relationship with China during the pandemic. Joe Biden, his Democratic successor, reversed the plan.
As a record number of voters worldwide head to the polls and Trump bids to win a second term in Washington, Nemer said she hoped funding for pandemic preparedness would remain a priority for governments.
“We hope that pandemic preparedness is going to rise above politics,” she said. “If it becomes a political issue we will go into this yo-yo phase of attention and then neglect which is unproductive to everyone.”