Q&A: Engaging the private sector on health security

Ryan Morhard, project lead for global health security at the World Economic Forum. Photo by: Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary / WEF / CC BY-NC-SA

CANBERRA — Global health security requires cooperation between the public and private sectors in order to properly manage the economic, security, health, and social disruption of epidemics and pandemics, according to World Economic Forum global health security expert Ryan Morhard.

“There is very little in terms of global readiness and response for epidemics or pandemics that can be done without public-private cooperation. The challenge is building and integrating it,” Morhard said, who is the project lead for global health security at WEF.

Morhard spoke with Devex about the opportunities and challenges in trying to build a business case for greater cooperation in global health security.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“We face 200 epidemic events a year, we need to be doing more to ensure the health security sector and private partners are communicating all year round.”

— Ryan Morhard, project lead for global health security, World Economic Forum

Can you discuss your role in facilitating public-private engagement to support global health security?

We’re an organization supporting public-private cooperation and in our history, we’ve seen several moments where we’ve been able to shape the global health agenda. Gavi was incubated and launched at the World Economic Forum as well as The Global Fund and CEPI.

Creating the building blocks for global health security

At the 2019 Global Health Security conference, the message was clear — stronger action is needed to engage the political, financial, and sectoral support required to achieve global health goals.

We’ve been able to do interesting things in global health, but in particular, when we look at global health security we have seen that the threat is one that requires public-private cooperation at every level — managing the economic, security, health, and social disruption of these events. And this requires greater cooperation.

We are committed to taking that challenge, identifying opportunities and acting on them and doing so in a way that is integrated, sustained, and reliable so we can actually start making challenges against that. And that’s what my role is.

Travel and tourism is one area that is commonly discussed as an area of public-private cooperation for global health security. What is happening in this space and what are the other sectors that are emerging as a growing opportunity for public-private cooperation?

There are other prime examples including communications and data, and applications of data to predict and forecast epidemics.

With travel and tourism, what we have seen over the last 30 years is the same basic problem — predictably again and again. We’ve seen recommendations to solve those problems and they are the same recommendations that come up. Based on that, one of the things the forum is committed to doing with our partners is to improve communications across sectors to make it easier to do the right thing.

Right now when it comes to travel and tourism, and making those decisions that relate to risk including flight cancellations, travel advisory, and border measures, it has become absolutely too easy to do the wrong thing. And we have a race to the bottom — one airline cancels their flights and others follow out of an abundance of caution.

We see the wrong decisions spread like wildfire and when that happens, it’s disruptive. To make it easier to do the right thing, we believe that improved information sharing will be a part of that, as well as improved relationships.

What we need to do is give a voice to better decisions because usually, if canceling a flight or closing a border is not helpful for the epidemic, and not rewarding politically, and not rewarding financially, it probably won’t happen. That flight will continue and that border will stay open.

It’s really incumbent on us to make sure we address all these points during an emergency and we haven’t been good at doing that. But better information sharing will start to shape expectations around behavior and create mindfulness around what is necessary and what is not, and less tolerance around the wrong decisions.

Can you discuss the opportunities in public-private cooperation of data and whether there is a concern with private partnership surrounding health data?

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There is a lot you can do with nonhealth data. We have seen a lot of really interesting things on mobile phone data, social media data, web search data, geospatial data, and behavioral data. The opportunity is to make it easier to find out what is possible in terms of using this data to improve our decision-making, forecasting, and predictions — and take these interesting examples to scale.

Part of that will be being clear about what the opportunities are, and what is helpful, and what are the gaps. And that is a public-private challenge. If we are going to make these insights available and actionable in a preparedness setting, it will require making sure those health officials know what applications are available to them and how to use them. That has to be done before a response.

“When the fire department comes to your house and puts out a fire — they aspire to not do more damage than possible and no one questions that.”

That is the challenge at hand and there are a couple of ways we can reorient the system to deliver upon that. If we don’t do this, we’ll never understand what is possible in terms of applications of these data collaborations for global health security because, right now, we are doing it in a very one-off type of way.

The space for data in global health security is one of the most exciting spaces with some of the most talented people working in it. But now as a community, it’s time to reorganize ourselves to give these examples a chance to go to scale. If we don’t do it, we’re going to be waiting a long time.

The partnerships between the public-private sector need to be built now to ensure the relationships are established in the case of an epidemic or pandemic — so how are we doing globally on achieving this?

As we face 200 epidemic events a year, we need to be doing more to ensure the health security sector and private partners are communicating all year round.

Public-private cooperation needs to be public-private cooperation — which is a recognition that it cannot be done without both. And I think pursuing public-private cooperation in areas that could be done by only one sector is not the right thing to be doing.

It needs to be an area that both sectors need to be involved in — and a motivation for each. If their incentives are aligned enough and they share a goal for an outcome, then that is a cooperation that will happen organically.

Public-private cooperation is also important in making sure epidemic events are as minimally disruptive as possible. In other areas of emergency response — such as when the fire department comes to your house and puts out a fire — they aspire to not do more damage than possible and no one questions that. And we should do the same thing when we respond to epidemics, that is being mindful of lives and livelihoods. We need to become a bit more sophisticated in our thinking in that regard.

Right now we need to bring more people into the fold — we’re not resourcing against the challenge anywhere near what is required. It is the case that no country is prepared so long as other countries are not prepared, and for that reason, there is a sense we should make sure everyone has sufficient capacity to prepare, detect, and respond to these inevitable threats.

No country is really well prepared and collectively we are not prepared for a pandemic threat, and the private sector cannot do it alone.

About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.