World economy could buckle under the strain of major disease outbreak

Warning that major outbreaks of infectious disease can cost the world economy more than $60 billion per year, an independent national commission recommends a global investment of about $4.5 billion annually to better prevent, detect and prepare for possible pandemics.

The Commission on a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future recommended that $3.4 billion per year go to upgrade public health infrastructure and capabilities for low- and middle-income countries. The commission's plan calls for spending another $1 billion per year to accelerate research and development of medical products including vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostic tools, and personal protective equipment and instruments.

The balance would be used to strengthen the World Health Organization and to fund WHO and World Bank contingency funds, the commission said in an announcement.

"Preventing and preparing for potentially catastrophic pandemics is far more effective--and ultimately, far less expensive--than reacting to them when they occur, which they will," said Commission Chair Peter Sands, senior fellow for the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard University's Kennedy School for Government.

The commission projects that the world will see at least one pandemic in the next century, with a 20 percent chance of four or more occurring.

Specific recommendations include:

  • By the end of this year, WHO should head efforts to define core public health capabilities and functions by the end of this year, and create benchmarks for countries to achieve. The agency should publish the results and release them to the public. 
  • The World Bank should limit its support for programs that strengthen national health systems to those that participate in the assessment process.
  • WHO should take the lead in developing better international coordination and response mechanisms to disease outbreaks, including creating a Center for Health Emergency Preparedness and Response by the end of the year. An independent group would monitor the center.
  • WHO should generate a high-priority watch list of outbreaks that have the potential to become international public health emergencies.

At last year's World Economic Forum, global security leaders warned that the next major pandemic could be triggered by influenza or drug-resistant superbugs.

In the U.S., meanwhile, one of the priorities this year for the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General is to assess hospitals' preparedness for managing high-risk infectious disease, as FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- read the announcement
- here's the commission's report