Commentary: As COVID-19 turns 3, ‘all hazards’ approach needed to prepare for the next pandemic
The world may not be able to predict when the next global pandemic might hit, but we can always better prepare for it with an “all hazards” approach, says International SOS’ Dr Chan Yanjun.
SINGAPORE: Three years ago today (Mar 11), the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. COVID-19 is not the first global pandemic, and unfortunately, it will not be the last one.
According to a 2021 study by the Duke Global Health Institute, outbreaks have become more prominent over the past 50 years, with increased occurrences caused by mosquito-borne diseases, global food contamination, zoonotic (animal-to-human transmission), viral and haemorrhagic diseases.
The most important takeaway of this study is that pandemics such as COVID-19 and the Spanish flu are “relatively likely” to occur in times to come.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE NEXT PANDEMIC?
Climate change is expected to exacerbate mosquito-borne diseases, as temperatures and water levels rise. This in turn increases the risks of outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, malaria and Zika virus.
Not only can we expect more frequent outbreaks, we can also expect outbreaks in places that were previously not at risk of such diseases. In addition, the melting of permafrost brings about the release of previously frozen pathogens, which in turn may lead to the evolution of new diseases and outbreaks.
Furthermore, the increased occurrences of natural disasters, such as wildfires, floods and droughts, as well as man-made issues like deforestation bring risks of wildlife coming into closer contact with human habitation. This increases the risk of zoonotic diseases evolving and potentially causing outbreaks.
It has been 13 years since the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, and history has shown that we will be faced with an influenza pandemic once every few decades.
The most likely scenario for the next pandemic is a new strain of influenza like the H7N9 bird flu virus or a new virus like the novel coronavirus in 2019, according to Professor Maire Connolly, coordinator of PANDEM-2, a European Union-funded project that aims to develop new solutions for efficient EU-wide pandemic management.
A MATTER OF WHEN, NOT IF
Despite the many possibilities of what the next pandemic could be, it is impossible to predict a timeline or location for the next pandemic, according to a group of researchers at London-based international affairs think tank Chatham House.
Pandemics are “random events” that can begin anywhere in the world. While efforts have been made to keep track of the emergence and locations of previous outbreaks, it is difficult to keep such databases updated. Any such database wouldn’t be a reliable source of information for scientists to predict the next pandemic.
Despite all signs pointing to the next pandemic being a question of when it occurs, International SOS’ Risk Outlook 2023 found that many are still not prepared for the next pandemic.
When COVID-19 hit, it sent shockwaves through the global economy as borders were closed and lockdowns were imposed, deeply impacting businesses and jobs.
Three years after the pandemic, however, only 25 per cent of survey respondents in International SOS’ Risk Outlook said their organisations are actively planning for future pandemics and COVID-19 variants.
The emergence of digital solutions as well as work-from-home and hybrid working arrangements from COVID-19 have acclimatised organisations in ensuring that their business operations continue in the event of the next pandemic. Still, more can still be done to ensure the mental and social health of their employees in dealing with the next pandemic.
HOW CAN ORGANISATIONS BETTER PREPARE FOR THE NEXT PANDEMIC?
Businesses and organisations need to work on risk management plans for their operations and employees, and ensure that health security is included as a pillar in their environmental, social, and governance frameworks.
They can also undertake risk assessments of existing and potential health threats, incorporating forecasts for potential geographic extensions of hazards due to climate change and other forces.
Vaccination is essential to beating viral pandemics. For pathogens with known pandemic potential, such as influenza, companies should look into providing employees with annual flu shots. Such vaccinations will prevent them from becoming ill during flu season and help to reduce the spread of infections.
Finally, they should look into increasing the size of their corporate medical departments and upgrade their level of expertise in dealing with infectious diseases.
We cannot predict when the next global pandemic might hit, but we can always better prepare for it with an “all hazards” approach.
Dr Chan Yanjun is Medical Director, Assistance Centre, Singapore and Malaysia, International SOS.