The world should be prepared to respond to a disease outbreak of "even deadlier potential" than COVID-19, the head of the WHO said after the UN agency launched a global network to monitor disease threats.
In a speech at the World Health Assembly (WHA) in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday (22 May), WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the end of COVID-19 as a global health emergency did not mean the global health threat was over.
"The threat of another variant emerging that causes new surges of disease and death remains," he told the annual decision-making meeting of the WHO's 194 member states.
"And the threat of another pathogen emerging with even deadlier potential remains."
Kicking off the 76th meeting of the WHA on Saturday (20 May), the WHO launched the International Pathogen Surveillance Network (IPSN) to help identify and respond to emerging disease threats using genomics.
The genetic information from viruses, bacteria and other disease-causing organisms can help scientists recognize and track diseases and develop treatments and vaccines. It can show how infectious or deadly a particular strain is, and how it spreads.
The network aims to give every country access to pathogen genomic sequencing and analytics as part of its public health system, Tedros said at the launch.
The IPSN Secretariat, hosted by the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, will bring together genomics and data analysis experts from around the world, incorporating governments, philanthropic foundations, multilateral organizations, civil society, academia and the private sector.
Rajiv Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, an IPSN funder, said global collaboration in pathogen genomic surveillance had been "critical" during the fight against COVID-19.
IPSN builds upon this experience by creating a strong platform for partners across sectors and borders to share knowledge, tools, and practices to ensure that pandemic prevention and response is innovative and robust in the future."
Rajiv Shah, President of The Rockefeller Foundation
Victoria Fan, a senior fellow in global health at the Center for Global Development, a think tank, says this kind of high-quality data would be an important tool for tracking pathogens of pandemic potential and supporting a timely response by other countries.
"Ensuring timely, accurate, quality data will remain the key challenge as countries reporting [a disease outbreak] face negative penalties," she told SciDev.Net, citing as an example South Africans facing global travel bans after the country announced detection of the new Omicron strain of COVID-19 in late 2021.
"Increasing positive incentives for reporting such as paying countries to report, as well as reducing negative incentives such as trade or travel restrictions imposed by other countries may be helpful," she added.
Earlier this month, the WHO declared that COVID-19 was no longer a so-called Public Health Emergency of International Concern, saying the virus was now "an established and ongoing health issue".
While the decision reflects the decline in COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, it could have implications for low- and middle-income countries' access to resources, and national health spending priorities, analysts told SciDev.Net.
A number of proposals to strengthen the WHO's response to health emergencies will be discussed at the WHA, which finishes next week (30 May), including a global health emergency council, made up of international leaders.
"We cannot kick this can down the road," said Tedros in his address.
"When the next pandemic comes knocking - and it will - we must be ready to answer decisively, collectively and equitably."
The Ethiopian said the COVID-19 pandemic had had major implications for health-related Sustainable Development Goals, with insufficient progress made to meet 2030 targets.
Despite 477 million more people enjoying universal health coverage since 2018, fewer than half the world's population will be covered by 2030 on current trends, meaning the rate of progress must double in order to achieve the target of health coverage for all by 2030, he warned.
The WHA, hosted by the Palais des Nations in Geneva, will review the challenges and achievements of the WHO over the last year.
It will also decide on the budget for the next two years, as well as addressing broader funding issues.