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Strengthening global health security must be a whole-of-society effort, one that leverages the business community’s potential to help build resilient health systems

In January, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus submitted a proposal to the organization’s Executive Board to strengthen WHO’s preparedness for and in response to health emergencies. Among the ‘Ten proposals to build a safer world together’ is a pillar on system strengthening, which outlines proposals on capacity, coordination, and collaboration.

Three years after the WHO released its first situation report on COVID-19, the importance of collaboration – especially between the public and private sectors – couldn’t be more clear. As companies demonstrated time and time again during the global pandemic, the business community is a critical partner to governments in strengthening health security.

While it is good to see momentum building towards a whole-of-society approach to preparing for future emergencies, one key factor that has been missing from these plans is the private sector. Unfortunately, the WHO proposal makes no mention of the private sector.

There are many examples of how companies across industries played a pivotal role in contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic response, working with governments and communities to get the virus under control and stem disease spread. Pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies developed diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments in record time. Suppliers of oxygen, PPE, ventilators, and other medical devices and supplies stepped up to the plate. Private healthcare systems implemented plans to expand their capacity to respond to unprecedented levels of hospitalization and severe disease. Thousands of small businesses adapted to the call to implement public health measures to curb the spread of the virus. Others heeded the call to step up the manufacturing and transport of essential supplies, analyze surveillance data, immediately implement employee safety measures, and more.

Better integration of the private sector before disaster strikes may be just as valuable in aiding a response effort, if not more so.

In January, the World Economic Forum released its 2023 Global Risks Report urging that governments, businesses, and civil society should each play to their strengths and pursue innovative ways to collaborate and cooperate, such as through investments in scientific research, building surveillance systems, and strengthening efforts to address antimicrobial resistance, among other activities.

We believe that the WHO’s proposal to strengthen emergency preparedness would be greatly enhanced by a similar call for greater cross-sector partnership.

A white paper published in September by the Private Sector Roundtable on Global Health Security, a cross-industry business coalition, makes a strong case for the business community’s indispensable role as a full partner in developing prevention and preparedness strategies for complex health threats. There are many areas where the public health response would be improved by bringing the business community to the table earlier.

Global Health Security is Everyone’s Business: Building Productive Partnerships to Prepare for Future Health Emergencies highlights the scope and value of the private sector’s contributions and the urgency of multi-sector collaboration to mitigate the enormous social and economic toll of health emergencies.

The white paper focuses on seven recommendations ranging from governance to leadership, to health communication on how to better integrate the private sector for greater and more sustained impact. It includes several examples of these integrated partnerships.

For instance, the technology company Qlik collaborated with the Asian Development Bank to build a COVID-19 command center dashboard to provide real-time information synthesized from hundreds of sources to guide staff in advising its 68 member countries on pandemic mitigation and response strategies.

Additionally, UPS facilitated last-mile distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), providing technical assistance and loaned manager support for ministries of health in LMICs, and using drones to deliver COVID-19 vaccine doses and ultra-cold portable freezers to store and distribute COVID-19 vaccines across multiple continents.

Ultimately, governments and civil society must work together with the private sector and take advantage of the vast and distinctive capabilities of companies, large and small, global and local. Whether managing industry-wide closures, mass shortages of PPE, or public health communications to limit infection spread, the private sector has critical expertise and resources to support preparedness and prevention – as well as response. To equip communities and countries for the next health crisis, the private sector should be engaged as a full partner.

We recommend that the WHO, policymakers, and global health leaders around the world work with companies to design effective mechanisms for engagement and fully integrate the private sector in strategies to build a world safe from health threats.

Securing necessary political will for investments in prevention, in addition to response, is a challenge the global health field has faced for decades – but with nearly 7 million deaths (and counting) directly from COVID-19, ‘pandemic proofing’ the world must be a priority. That includes leveraging the experience and know-how of the private sector and tapping into the enormous potential of what business has to offer. Failure to act now will bring us closer to repeating our well-worn cycle of panic and neglect.

No one sector can tackle a global health emergency on its own. The business community stands ready to play its part.

Maria Schneider

Maria is an award-winning strategist who leads the Secretariat for the Private Sector Roundtable on Global Health Security – a cross-industry coalition. She has more than 20 years of experience in public/private partnerships with expertise in a range of health areas. She provides counsel to a diverse group of clients on initiatives to improve access to health care around the world. Before she joined Rabin Martin, Maria was Senior Vice President in Edelman's Corporate Social Responsibility practice, where she created the Partnership for Disaster Response for the Business Roundtable, (winning the prestigious public relations Gold Sabre Award). Prior to that, she helped refocus the mission of the Pfizer Foundation. ​

Kevin Lass
Senior Consultant

Kevin is a member of the Secretariat team for the PSRT. In addition to driving private-sector collaboration to strengthen global health security, he advises clients on expanding their global health impact and achieving their commercial targets. Kevin joined the firm following successive roles in the Government of Ontario’s Office of the Minister of Health. He most recently served as Director of Pandemic Response and worked alongside political leaders, civil service, and cross-sector stakeholders to develop an equitable and efficient COVID-19 vaccination rollout, testing expansion, and treatment strategy across the province.

Emma Dahill

Emma is a member of the Secretariat team for the PSRT. In addition to supporting diverse companies’ efforts to contribute to health security, Emma advises clients on building community partnerships and designing initiatives to increase equitable access to healthcare. Prior to joining the firm, Emma worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Prosperity and Development where she researched development finance and supply chain resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic.