WHO to identify pathogens that may cause future pandemics

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The WHO said the aim was to update a list used to guide global research. (representative)

Geneva, Switzerland:

The World Health Organization said on Monday it was developing a new list of priority pathogens at risk of causing pandemics or outbreaks that should be closely monitored.

The WHO said the aim was to update a list used to guide global research and development (R&D) and investment, especially in vaccines, tests and treatments.

As part of that process, which began Friday, the United Nations Health Organization is convening more than 300 scientists to consider evidence on more than 25 families of viruses and bacteria.

They will also consider the so-called “Disease X” – an unknown pathogen that could cause a serious international epidemic.

“Addressing priority pathogens and virus families for countermeasure research and development is essential for a rapid and effective response to epidemics and pandemics,” said Michael Ryan, WHO emergency director.

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“Without significant investment in R&D prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, it would not have been possible to develop safe and effective vaccines in record time.”

The list was first published in 2017.

It currently includes Covid-19, Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus disease, Lassa fever, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Nipah, Zika and Disease X.

For each pathogen identified as a priority, experts will identify knowledge gaps and research priorities.

Desired specifications for vaccines, treatments and diagnostic tests can then be drawn up.

Efforts are also underway to facilitate clinical trials to develop such tools, while also considering strengthening regulatory and ethical oversight.

The revised list is expected to be published before April 2023.

Pandemic treaty

The sessions on pathogens come as WHO prepares for the next round of talks on a pandemic treaty.

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An intergovernmental negotiating group is paving the way for a global agreement that could eventually regulate how countries prepare for and respond to future pandemic threats.

They will meet in Geneva from December 5 to 7 for a third meeting to draft and negotiate a WHO convention or other type of international agreement on pandemic preparedness and response.

A progress report will be presented to WHO member states next year, with the final outcome for consideration in 2024.

A first draft text for the December meeting was published last week.

The Panel for a Global Public Health Convention, an independent coalition of statesmen and health leaders, said the draft did not go far enough despite the bright spots.

The panel said on Monday that more needs to be done to provide accountability and establish clear warning-and-response timelines to prevent harmful consequences when an outbreak emerges.

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“Once an outbreak is detected, there are often a few critical hours to report, assess and act to stop the spread of a disease before it becomes virtually unstoppable,” the panel said in a statement.

“The current design does not go far enough to emphasize the urgency needed to either prepare for disease X or known pathogens, or to respond at an early stage,” it said.

“From December 2019, when information about the new coronavirus was suppressed, to multiple countries taking a wait-and-see approach when Covid-19 cases were first reported…we have seen the damaging consequences of inaction at the outset.”

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