Lessons Learned from COVID Takes Spotlight at World Economic Forum

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Leaders gathered in Davos examined how to apply lessons learned from COVID-19 to preventing future pandemics and reducing health inequities.

Rolf Fricker

Set against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine, the persistent COVID-19 pandemic, and global worries around inflation and a broken supply chain, this year was undoubtedly one of the most dynamic gatherings at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. Corporate and political leaders from around the world laid out strategies for not just responding to these challenges but sustaining progress that we’ve seen on several fronts over the past few years.

Beyond some of the immediate economic and geopolitical disturbances facing leaders, there were a host of conversations around climate change and environmental, social, and governance – ESG – agendas. And, of course, healthcare was front-and-center. A couple of key themes stood out for me as I wrapped up my time in Davos:

Pandemic response: As you can imagine, the healthcare agenda was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences for healthcare systems across the globe. More than 90% of countries reported that the pandemic disrupted essential health services, according to the World Health Organization. And as this earlier Oliver Wyman Health post showed, there’s been wide disparity in vaccine distribution with high-income countries administering nearly 25 times more vaccines than low-income countries.

Panel discussions also delved into how migration, global conflicts and climate change are exacerbating health inequities. In combination with an upcoming hunger war, the situation will become even more dramatic. Discussions to address these problems homed in on improving the availability and access to care and therapeutics, as well as tackling cost. Some solutions are already being tested, for instance the World Economic Forum’s use of drones to deliver vaccines in India. And during the conference, Pfizer announced plans to offer 23 patented medicines and vaccines to the world’s 45 lowest income countries at no cost. The acceleration in digital solutions will also come into play as we search for ways to improve not just healthcare but the health of communities.

It was also interesting to hear Bill Gates challenge attendees to prepare for the next health crisis. Gates recently published the book, How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic, which follows is 2021 book, How to Avoid Climate Disaster. While outbreaks are inevitable, Gates said pandemics are optional. There are multiple pathways governments and other institutions can take to implement early warning systems and improve crisis communications, as well as developing better data collection systems. Boldly, he suggested that with the proper systems in place, the spread of COVID-19 could have been halted after 100 days and we could have saved 98% of the 6 million lives that have been lost.

Infectious disease: As I wrote on LinkedIn during the week, I joined a discussion about antibiotic resistance, which has been a growing problem across the globe for decades. For example, about half a million people around the world are estimated to die due to drug-resistance tuberculosis every year. Roughly 700,000 people die annually from so-called superbugs and that number is projected to climb to 10 million by 2050. Pharmaceutical companies have dialed back their investments into diseases with limited economic upside. As a result, other entities have stepped in to fill the void, including the Global Antibiotic Research & Development Partnership. And 28 pharmaceutical companies put up $1.2 billion to back the AMR Action Fund, which seeks to curb the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. We are seeing significant progress on candidates in clinical studies, too, which was an encouraging message from Davos.