Post-Ebola rapid response unit needed, health leaders tell G7

Global health leaders will ask G7 leaders this weekend to back the creation of a specialist rapid response unit to tackle outbreaks of infectious killer diseases.

Next global disease epidemic seen as inevitable

Liberia President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, right, gives American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, left, what is know as the 'Ebola hand shake' in 2014. The cost of a rapid response operation pales beside the hundreds of millions being spent on fighting Ebola, disease experts say. (Abbas Dulleh/Associated Press)

Global health leaders will ask G7 leaders this weekend to back the creation of a specialist rapid response unit to tackle outbreaks of infectious killer diseases.

The move reflects how the World Health Organization in particular was caught unprepared last year by Ebola, which spread through three West African countries, has killed 11,000 people, and will not be stamped out before the end of this year.

Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the unit should come under the WHO, but be free of bureaucracy and able to act independently "in days" when a potentially fatal epidemic begins.

"With Ebola, it's taken too long. It's nonsense to say: 'Isn't it great? We've done in a year what normally takes four or five years'. We got to get into a mindset that says these infectious diseases can emerge in days and weeks, so we need to respond to that, not to some fanciful notion of an ideal world."

Farrar said German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared supportive of the proposal when he and other global health specialists met her last month to discuss international reforms ahead of the summit of the Group of Seven world powers that she is hosting on June 7-8. 

We mustn't think surveillance itself is enough. The world is already much better at detecting these things as they emerge. But what we need is the capacity to respond.- Jeremy Farrar

The specialists, including Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, foresee a rapid response unit of around 100 people working within the WHO in Geneva, able to call on a reserve of up to 10,000 scientists worldwide as necessary.

The reservists would include experts in infectious diseases, virologists and epidemiologists with a mandate to travel quickly to the source of an outbreak.

"We mustn't think surveillance itself is enough. The world is already much better at detecting these things as they emerge. But what we need is the capacity to respond," Farrar said.

The rapid response operation could cost $100-200 million US a year, but Farrar said this paled beside the hundreds of millions being spent on fighting Ebola, and regional economic losses that the World Bank has estimated at around $500 million US.

Experts say future epidemics are inevitable, as new and unknown viruses jump from animals to humans and mutate in ways that could one day make them a pandemic threat.

Even if the time and place cannot be predicted, Farrar said the world could still prepare.

"There are only certain parts of a human body that can be affected: there can be respiratory infections like SARS and MERS, or blood-borne things like Ebola, there are sexually transmitted things like HIV. But there isn't an unlimited number, and it is possible to prepare for and respond to them."

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