Q&A: The private sector's seat at the global health security table

Alan Tennenberg, chief medical officer at Johnson & Johnson, speaks at the 2017 World Health Summit. Photo by: World Health Summit

In the wake of Ebola, many governments were spurred to think about their response and possible prevention tactics against similar epidemics moving forward. They weren’t alone. Seeing the clear economic impact such outbreaks could have on business and economies, the private sector stepped up and joined the conversation.

“It's been pretty well established that vast investment in health has a direct impact on economic gain,” said Alan Tennenberg, chief medical officer at Johnson & Johnson. “A healthy population is a productive population and can lead to a healthier, stronger economy. When you have a healthy, strong, growing economy, you tend to have a situation of greater stability.”

Since then, corporations from across the globe have committed to working together alongside nongovernmental organizations and governments to ensure that infectious diseases don’t necessarily equate to loss of life or an economic downturn. While that undoubtedly means considering emergency response, it is critical to ensure that preventative measures are in place before it even gets to that stage.

“Being able to develop those health care systems to prevent, protect, and respond to these emergencies is as important as, or more important than, an emergency response. It costs less to invest in advance and to be ready,” said Tennenberg. “We can reduce the spread of diseases, the number of infections, the number of deaths, and the economic impact within our country — or indeed across borders — by being ready.”

Sitting down with Devex, Tennenberg revealed some of the inner workings, systems, and processes that the private sector is putting in place to mitigate against a breach of health security, and he explains why the sector has more to offer than money. Below are highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What is the current role of the private sector in global health security initiatives?

The private sector is very much involved in health security initiatives. There are companies very heavily involved in the development of vaccines and countermeasures that can be used to prevent, or respond to, some of these diseases of epidemic and pandemic potential. The private sector also has a number of programs across multiple industries that focus on strengthening and developing the health care workforce with a focus on frontline health care workers.

I think that currently what we're seeing is an increased move toward public-private partnerships where governments have the ultimate responsibility for developing their workforce and their health infrastructure in order to detect, prevent, and respond to infectious risks — but the private sector can bring quite a bit of expertise and capability as well. I think through enhancing these PPPs, we could have a greater impact at preventing and responding to epidemics or pandemics.

Could you talk us through how Johnson & Johnson became involved in the Global Health Security Agenda?

During the Ebola outbreak, in talking to colleagues within other health care companies and companies outside of the health care industry, there was a general feeling that the private sector had a tremendous amount to contribute to outbreak response, but also on the prevention and the preparedness side. We all recognized that we had skills and expertise to offer, but didn’t necessarily know how to bring those to the table.

We also learned in talking to colleagues on the governmental side that they also had an interest in engaging with the private sector. For the most part, they had more of an interest in looking toward the private sector as donors to help to raise capital quickly to intervene in a setting of an outbreak. But some were more aware than others that the private sector had quite a bit more to offer them than money.

“I think that just about any private sector entity should see themselves as having a key role in health security, both to protect the community at large and also to protect their employees and their business operations.”

— Alan Tennenberg, chief medical officer, Johnson & Johnson

There was a pretty clear private sector response to the Ebola outbreak, and we organized relatively quickly in order to engage. But soon after the crisis abated, the energy behind those private sector initiatives also, to a certain degree, abated. So we started to think that a place to get involved longitudinally might be to collaborate with governments from the GHSA.

Right now there are 63 governments that have come together and committed to implementing the international health regulations, which really govern how countries get their systems ready to prevent, protect, and respond to infectious diseases. We felt that by engaging as part of the GHSA it would be a very impactful way to work closely with governments and bring those private sector capabilities to the table.

This is what we know now as the GHSA’s private sector roundtable. What impact has this coalition had so far?

One thing that we've done very specifically is implement what’s called external evaluation. So far, out of the 63 countries that are involved with the GHSA, about 50 to 60 have already gone through their evaluations and a massive amount of data has been collected.

One of our partners, the technology company Intel, in collaboration with another one of our other partners, Clip technologies, put together a tool to collate, process, manage, and report on the information coming out of these external evaluations. That’s one very concrete example of what our private sector coalition has been able to make available to the GHSA governments — making the data more acceptable and more usable.

What further action do you think is required to ensure prevention and preparation against future outbreaks?

I think there are many things that still need to be done. The joint external evaluations point to where the gaps are, but I think we really have to think about strong resilient health care systems. We need to have health care systems and train frontline health care workers — that includes epidemiologists — who provide good, comprehensive primary care to populations even when there isn't an outbreak and emergency, but who are in place both to detect and to respond to emergencies when they do occur.

One of the key things that we learned during the Ebola crisis was that when health care systems are weak and strapped in ways that are unanticipated — or they’re simply not prepared even if they have been anticipated — they can collapse. What we've seen, what we've learned, and what was really reiterated at the ministerial meeting recently in Uganda, was that there's a very close connection between global health security and universal health coverage. Making sure that a population has a solid health care system to rely upon can actually increase and augment the ability of that system, both to respond to, and remain functioning in a strong way, in the setting of an outbreak or health emergency.

Do you have a key message for the private sector or global health community when it comes to health security?

The willingness of global health agencies and of governments to work together with the private sector in partnership on global health security is increasing — and it's increasing quite rapidly. I think that just about any private sector entity should see themselves as having a key role in health security, both to protect the community at large and also to protect their employees and their business operations. Every organization has something to add and we’d really encourage the private sector to get involved, either through the private sector roundtable or through other organizations locally that have an interest in working on health security — make sure their capabilities and expertise are at the table.

Examining how global health affects security and vice versa, Devex, PATH, and Johnson & Johnson look at how country governments, donors, foundations, the private sector, and civil society can better respond to and anticipate threats, asking whether increased investment in global health security is critical to the security of all countries. Join our conversation on preparing for the unexpected by visiting the From Healthy to Secure site and tagging #Health4Security and @Devex on social media.

About the author

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    Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is an editorial associate and reporter at Devex. She has a background in journalism and communications, and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York and London. She is now based in Barcelona and produces multimedia editorial content for digital content series and media partnerships.