Epidemic early warningPath Towards a Global Pathogen Early Warning System

Published 11 August 2021

The world’s ability to detect, track, and analyze disease threats has improved considerably over the past several decades, the COVID-19 pandemic drove home a terrible reality: the systems we had in place are still deeply insufficient for halting the rapid spread of a novel pathogen fast enough to prevent a staggering level of damage. 

As part of a major effort to address growing biothreats, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) released a report that both assesses the current state of biosurveillance in the world, and offers strong recommendations for how to build a “global pathogen early warning system” – one designed to catch the full range of biological threats before they become devastating pandemics. The report was authored by a team with deep experience in both the national security and health fields.

Though the world’s ability to detect, track, and analyze disease threats has improved considerably over the past several decades, the COVID-19 pandemic drove home a terrible reality: the systems we had in place are still deeply insufficient for halting the rapid spread of a novel pathogen fast enough to prevent a staggering level of damage. 

The report identifies critical gaps in biosurveillance and recommendations for filling them.

On gaps, the analysis shows that disease reporting is highly inconsistent across geographies. According to one of the co-authors, Dr. Natasha Bajema, Director of the Converging Risks Lab at the Council on Strategic Risks, “Data collected are not always shared in a timely way, and even then are not always compatible for creating a full picture of an outbreak.”

Many of today’s systems also rely on reporting weeks or longer after diseases are diagnosed in patients. This means patients can continue spreading a disease (at times unknowingly) for longer. Novel pathogens new to human understanding, like SARS-CoV-2 was in 2019, are too often not characterized before they’ve spread to an alarming extent.

“The good news is that many countries have a strong foundation to build upon: capable laboratories, well trained personnel, often-strong coordination with neighboring nations, and rapidly-advancing technologies,” noted Christine Parthemore, CEO of the Council on Strategic Risks and co-author of the report.

Co-author and Council on Strategic Risks Fellow Bill Beaver added, “Technologies such as metagenomic sequencing have come into their own during the pandemic and are making possible a layered system to rapidly detect and characterize the next SARS-CoV-2.” 

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