Covid-19 is not unusual. Viruses leap from their animal hosts to humans with startling regularity. Even before the current pandemic, these zoonotic diseases were responsible for nearly three million deaths a year. Five new diseases of this ilk appear every year, each with the potential to tear through the world’s population, lock down societies and flatline economies.
Unfortunately, the rate of virus transfer from animals to humans is likely to increase. Environmental degradation, the climate emergency, and booming urbanisation are displacing animal and human populations, forcing them to live in closer proximity.
Add in the immense scale of international travel and trade and the world is becoming ever more hospitable for diseases to jump from animals to humans and then from one person to another.
Covid-19 is a warning shot. Other, potentially more deadly zoonotic diseases are lurking in the wings and could take centre stage at any time. The current pandemic has shown that when such a disease is highly infectious, no single state can manage alone. A local outbreak rapidly becomes a global issue.
What, then, should we do differently? We need an unprecedented level of cooperation between government, academia and – crucially – business if we are to be ready for the next pandemic. We need this now – and with its presidency of the G7, the UK can lead the way.
Power of data
Specifically, we need more global health data – for humans and animals – and better ways of sharing it. Covid-19 has exposed the ragged, inefficient ways in which countries compile health data. For example, there is no global database tracking and cataloguing the thousands of known, let alone the new and emerging, animal-based infectious agents that threaten humans.
The pandemic has also shown the power of such data when we have it. The large scale genomic sequencing of patients such as the world-leading GenOMICC study is just once instance where information is helping us tackle the disease and save lives. Because of data, we know that Covid-19 is laying its heaviest burden on the most vulnerable in society. Global inequalities have widened. However, because we can measure it, we can begin to tackle it.
We must build on the hard learned lessons of the pandemic and create an enduring, trusted, international partnership and data infrastructure to support a rapid response to future events. Business agrees. In May 2021 the B7, the business federations of the G7 countries, issued a declaration calling for, among other things, better cross border flows of data as the world rebuilds.
Through positive constructive collaboration across the public, academic and private sectors we can turn health emergencies into manageable health events.
The layering of data sets from these areas is a powerful tool. Combine data from genomic sequencing on how a virus behaves with knowledge about how a human’s immune system reacts to it, add in details about how it is transmitted and – suddenly – we would have genuine predictive power for its future evolution and spread.
It’s businesses’ time
For business and academia there is both a role – as holders of vast amounts of useful data – and an opportunity. Harnessing data relating to One Health, the catch-all phrase for the intersection and interdependence of animal, human and ecological health, could reap economic benefit for a remarkably diverse breadth of sectors.
The UK, I believe, is in a strong position to take a leading role in this endeavour. We have world-class academic institutions such as the University of Edinburgh curating health data from across the world and partnering with businesses such as Legal & General to jointly deliver positive social impact.
Global Britain, global system
The UK should use its presidency of the G7 group of nations to set out a vision for what such a global system would look like.
We should press for international clinical trials and biomedical and health data to be united with environmental and business data. This would allow for a more rapid prediction of how a disease might spread, which in turn enables a quicker decisions on deployment of control measures. Such coordination of data would also accelerate the identification of treatment strategies and avoid the duplication of global effort.
The right academic and supercomputing prowess can glean these insights from the noise, reduce the harm of the current pandemic and prepare the world for future ones.
We are not doing this from a standing start. We can build upon existing alliances that work with funders, academia, industry and governments – as we did for the UK’s world-leading vaccination programme – to maintain the integrity of a trustworthy ecosystem for data sharing internationally.
More diseases like Covid-19 are inevitable. If we get global health data right, the attendant global meltdowns are not.
Image credits: Flags, Bet_Noire/Getty; lab, janiecbros/Getty; St Ives, Oliver Dickinson/Getty
The views expressed in this section are those of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent those of the University.