Global business should contribute towards cost of preparing for pandemics

Global business should play a critical role in making the world more resilient against disease outbreaks, contributing to the investment needed to strengthen health systems, respond to epidemics and develop new vaccines and drugs, the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos heard today.

The recent report of the Commission on Creating a Global Health Risk Framework for the Future (GHRF) estimated the global costs of epidemics and pandemics at $60 billion annually. As many of these costs fall on the private sector – for example through an increase in insurance claims and negative impacts on travel and tourism – companies beyond the health industry have a clear interest in contributing both financially and 'in kind' to efforts to enhance health security, leaders from business and philanthropy said.

During the Ebola epidemic it became clear that non-governmental organisations and charitable foundations had a large role to play in bringing the epidemic under control in the form of research, medical aid and logistical support, but experts said their efforts could be strengthened if business increased its contribution. The commercial sector should also add its political support for greater government investment in health security around the world.

Jeremy Farrar, Director of the Wellcome Trust, said: "The human costs of epidemic threats like Ebola and pandemic threats like flu are more than great enough to justify the reasonably modest investments that are needed to build better health security, but the economic costs, including the costs to business, are vast too. Infectious disease disrupts travel and trade, and is among the most significant risks that the commercial sector faces.

"Along with governments, philanthropy and civil society, business has an important part to play in our efforts to prevent, prepare for and respond to infectious disease, by contributing resources, expertise and political support. It is in their own interests to do so."

Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, said: "The report issued by the Global Health Risk Framework for the Future, in conjunction with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, is the catalyst for the public and private sectors to step-up and collectively work toward implementing proactive solutions to pandemics that will help to improve the health outcomes and transform the quality of people’s lives. The health, social and economic implications to business and society are dire if we don’t take action."

Zia Khan, Vice President for Initiatives and Strategy at The Rockefeller Foundation, said: "Epidemic threats like Ebola bring with them catastrophic economic and humanitarian impacts, demonstrating how quickly pandemics become issues for not just health ministries to address, but a whole range of public and private sector actors as well. The recommendations of this Commission, if implemented, would lead to a stronger, more responsive and more resilient approach to preventing pandemics, and dramatically reduce the human, economic, and national security burden of pandemic risk."

The GHRF report, published on 13 January, highlights infectious diseases as one of the biggest risks facing humankind. It estimates that pandemics cost the world more than $60bn (£42bn) each year, and match wars and natural disasters in their capacity to endanger human life and health and disrupt societies. Yet compared with other high-profile threats to human and economic security – such as war, terrorism, nuclear disasters, natural catastrophes and financial crises – preparation for pandemics has received chronic under-investment.

The report, which was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, Wellcome Trust and six other philanthropic and government organisations, recommended that an investment of $4.5 billion each year would contribute significantly to better health security, with resources drawn from governments, the private sector and philanthropy. Dr Farrar and Mr Polman were members of the International Oversight Group of the GHRF report.