Opinion: Why global health security is every company's business

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A district medical officer counts personal protective equipment donations in Simanjiro, Tanzania. Photo by: PINGO / CC BY-NC

Today, and for the foreseeable future, we are experiencing the unprecedented and horrific impact of COVID-19 on not only human health but also the economies of countries around the world. With millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of deaths reported, COVID-19 is one of the most important global health crises of our time — and it’s transforming how we all see and approach health security. All sectors must be part of the global response — including the private sector.

As COVID-19 has highlighted, the time to mobilize in response to a health threat is well before it hits.

Increasingly, the business community is recognizing that global health security and emergency preparedness must be integral components of a company’s sustainability strategy. Making sure our employees and their families are safe and that nations can effectively respond to health emergencies are essential for conducting business as well as meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 3.8 on achieving universal health coverage.

“We are only as strong as our weakest neighbor.”

— Dr. Vanessa Kerry, Harvard Medical School

The private sector’s role in the COVID-19 response

When COVID-19 emerged, many businesses swung into action to protect their employees, communities, and vulnerable populations across the globe. Health care companies immediately set out to find solutions to the most urgent challenges — from leading the development of a vaccine by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and IAVI., Moderna, Pfizer, and others; to deploying tests by Siemens Healthineers; and personal protective equipment for health workers by Henry Schein and UPS; and studying treatments by Eli Lilly and Gilead.

In addition, technology companies like Qlik are working in collaboration with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to use data tracking and analytical applications to power the center’s COVID-19 case tracking site. Others, like McCann Health, are providing strategic support for risk communications to organizations leading the response in resource-limited settings.

Online event: Between Pandemics

Devex and PSRT are hosting the event Between Pandemics: Global Health Security, Universal Health Coverage, and the Role of the Private Sector on Thursday, June 18. Find out more about the event here.

These contributions of expertise are in addition to large financial and product donations from companies across sectors to support the global response.

This is nothing new. Historically, the business community has played an important role in supporting recovery from natural disasters and health emergencies at the global and community level. From the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when companies donated medicines and first aid equipment and deployed supply chain experts, to the Ebola outbreak 10 years later when companies such as ExxonMobil supported the training of health responders, and Firestone set up its own treatment center in Liberia and leveraged its capabilities to prevent a major outbreak.

Over the past few years, we have seen a welcome shift, with business taking a more proactive role in supporting countries in their efforts to prepare for health threats — before the chaos and urgency of saving lives overtakes all attention. An example of this in action is the Private Sector Roundtable on Global Health Security Agenda. PSRT is a coalition of leading companies from across industries that joined forces in 2015 to help drive the global health security agenda by engaging with governments to bring private sector capabilities and resources to the table. Given the current crisis, the work of groups such as PSRT — which we co-chair — has never been more vital.

PSRT is a steering group member of the Global Health Security Agenda — a collaborative network of 69 member nations established in 2014 to address threats to public health around the world. As the official voice of the private sector within the global health security community, PSRT works with countries and multilateral agencies to strengthen the health infrastructure needed to save lives and ensure business continuity. For example, PSRT member companies are providing technical assistance in data analysis, biosecurity, antimicrobial resistance, supply chain management, and communicating about health risks.

Our members are compelled by the inextricable link between mitigating health threats and ensuring business sustainability — a connection that has been highlighted all too well by COVID-19’s economic impact, which is growing direr with the pandemic’s spread.

‘Two sides of the same coin’

“Health security is national security,” Dr. Vanessa Kerry from Harvard Medical School recently told PSRT during one in a series of COVID-19 briefings we have hosted for the business community, adding that a failure to invest in health systems will leave us all vulnerable. “We are only as strong as our weakest neighbor,” she added.

Right now, nations across the globe are fighting to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to mitigate its impact, all while treating the sick with tremendous urgency. Alarmingly, COVID-19 is moving rapidly to low- and middle-income countries, many of which lack strong health systems. As these nations’ cases increase exponentially, many will have serious limitations in their capacity to respond under pressure.

The situation now, more than ever, underscores the need for strong and resilient health systems worldwide. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization has said, “universal health coverage and health security are two sides of the same coin.”

This message was reinforced during another COVID-19 briefing hosted by PSRT in April, featuring John Nkengasong, director of the Africa CDC, and Githinji Gitahi, global CEO of Amref Health Africa — a leading health NGO headquartered in Kenya. Both highlighted the “interdependency” of global health security and UHC on the African continent.

Gitahi described a troubling trend of people hiding COVID-19 symptoms because of the financial implications of testing positive and having to quarantine. In some countries, he explained, individuals bear the cost of care and many can’t afford to miss work and risk losing income. He also emphasized that removing financial protection, especially for the most vulnerable, can hinder access to care for those infected — something that could have devastating impacts across a population.

Health systems strengthening is key to prepare for future pandemics

Strong health systems and UHC are fundamental to the COVID-19 response — and essential for preparing for the next pandemic. Governments, civil society, and the private sector must continue to advocate for greater investment in health security. COVID-19 is not the first and will not be the last health emergency of our time.

As we reflect on the early stages of the COVID-19 response, it is clear that the economic cost of a crisis is much greater in the absence of UHC and robust health systems. The time to act in preparation for the next pandemic is now, and PSRT calls upon all private sector organizations to join forces as we continue to work closely with governments to drive the health security agenda forward: the sustainability of our economies and societies depend on it.

For more information and to join the Private Sector Roundtable, please visit our website and contact us.

About the authors

  • Alan Tennenberg

    Trained as an infectious diseases physician, Alan Tennenberg brings over 25 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry, clinical medicine, public health, and academia to the position of chief medical officer of Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health.
  • Ashling Mulvaney

    Ashling Mulvaney has been in the pharmaceutical industry for 20 years, and with AstraZeneca since 2008, in a range of access-focused roles across therapy areas including cardiovascular, diabetes, and respiratory. In 2016, Ashling took on leadership of AstraZeneca’s flagship Healthy Heart Africa program.