fbpx Stopping the next pandemic | Harvard Kennedy School

Even as the world is still struggling to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, it must act now to strengthen its preparedness for the pandemics to come, according to a report released Friday by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the G-20 group of leading rich and developing nations.

Larry Summers headshot.The panel, co-chaired by Harvard economist Larry Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor, calls for the international community to invest $15 billion a year in additional funds and for a major overhaul of the world’s health governance infrastructure.

“This is a profound moment in international relations, and in foreign policy,” Summers said earlier this week. “For the first time in history, security for most of the world's people is going to depend less on resisting foreign adversaries and balancing power than on meeting common threats and fostering cooperation.”

The panel’s report rests on chilling foundations. First, that the COVID-19 pandemic represents “the biggest setback to lives and livelihoods globally since the Second World War,” plunging hundreds of millions of people back into poverty, killing an estimated 4 million people, and incurring cumulative losses that have been projected at $22 trillion. And second, that we have entered an “age of pandemics,” and events like the current pandemic may reoccur with frightening regularity in the years to come.

It is also based on the moral and practical imperative of collective action, helping all countries, including the poorest, defend themselves against this and future pandemics.

The panel, made up mainly of economic and financial experts, was established in January by the G-20 to address how to best organize the international community’s finances to prepare for future pandemics.

Its detailed report identifies four major areas of prevention, preparedness, and response that need to be addressed: a global surveillance and research network to prevent and detect future threats; more resilient national health systems; the supply of medical countermeasures and tools, to radically shorten the response time to a pandemic and deliver equitable global access; and global governance that ensures coordination and adequate funding.

Flags of G20 countries.

“For the first time in history, security for most of the world's people is going to depend less on resisting foreign adversaries and balancing power than on meeting common threats and fostering cooperation.”

Larry Summers

The $75 billion price tag amounts to only a small fraction—700 times less, by the panel’s estimate—of what the pandemic cost national governments. The panel also assumes the investments, initially scheduled over a five-year period, would have to be ongoing.

That money would include a $10 billion annual Global Health Threats Fund, plus an additional $5 billion a year in additional funding for international institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and international financial organizations, such as the World Bank, that would allow them to disburse funds quickly in the event of a new pandemic.

Financial oversight and a key coordination function would be played by a Global Health Threats Board made up of health and finance ministers from the G-20 and other countries, as well as heads of major regional organizations. It is modeled after the Financial Stability Board, which was established by the G-20 following the 2008 global financial crisis.

“The collective investments we propose, with equitable contributions by all nations, are affordable,” the report says. “They are also miniscule compared to the US$10 trillion that governments have already incurred in the COVID-19 crisis. We must invest without delay. It will be a huge error to economize over the short term and wait once again until it is too late to prevent a pandemic from overwhelming us. The next pandemic may indeed be worse.”

The panel includes more than 20 financial and economic experts with experience in government, international organizations, and the private sector. Summers served as U.S. treasury secretary under President Clinton and led President Obama’s National Economic Council, and is Weil Director of the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at Harvard Kennedy School. The other two co-chairs are Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization and a former Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, senior minister and former deputy prime minister and minister of finance of Singapore.


Banner image: A healthcare worker collects swab samples for COVID-19 test of passengers arriving from outstation trains in Mumbai, India. Photo by Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

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