Use + Remix

Special Report

Pandemic warning systems

Can we predict emerging diseases like we predict the weather?

Valuable lessons from the current global pandemic might just change the way we respond in the future. : Michael Joiner, 360info Valuable lessons from the current global pandemic might just change the way we respond in the future. : Michael Joiner, 360info

Can we predict emerging diseases like we predict the weather?

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for an effective warning system to signal upcoming disease outbreaks.

It’s an increasingly busy space, with universities, think-tanks, governments and commercial enterprises vying to fill the gap in accurate, reliable, pre-emptive warnings.

But, most alert systems only monitor diseases once they reach animal or human populations. At that point, it can often be too late.

Valuable lessons from the current global pandemic might just change the way we respond in the future.

The race is on to see who is better placed to sound the alarm, what will get governments to act and listen, and how we can better predict infectious diseases before they develop into another global threat to public health.


When the World Health Organization sounded its alarm on an imminent pandemic — the declaration of a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) — in January 2020, few nations listened to its advice to test and trace.

An independent panel has since released reports aiming to ensure “future infectious disease outbreak[s] would not become another catastrophic pandemic”.

It found: “Preparations [for pandemics were] inconsistent and underfunded. The alert system was too slow — and too meek.
“The World Health Organization was under-powered …
“Global political leadership was absent.”

Work on a global pandemic treaty,  a legally binding agreement under international law, is expected to continue until 2024.

It’s hoped the treaty will:
– Ensure higher, sustained and long-term political engagement by world leaders
– Define clear processes, tasks and expectations
– Enhance long-term public- and private-sector support at all levels
– Integrate health matters across all relevant policy areas


Quote attributable to Carina Fearnley, University College London:

“We need to get better with warnings because we will have another outbreak and it can be much worse than what we’ve already faced.”

“Health warning systems across the world need to move from being responsive, to preparedness and prevention.”

Quote attributable to Grace Wongge, Monash University Indonesia:

“The core of [the WHO’s] International Health Regulations’ failure is not the system but the transparency and the decision-making.”

Quote attributable to Kumitaa Theva Das, University of Science Malaysia:

“Surveillance methods that are specific and sensitive enough to detect even small spikes in case numbers are what can ultimately help prevent future pandemics.”


Designing infectious disease warnings that work
Claudia Fernandez De Cordoba Farini and Ilan Kelman, University College London
Most infectious disease warning systems have been set up to fail as they focus on science, not people.

Using artificial intelligence to red-flag emerging pandemics
Raina Macintyre, University of New South Wales
AI filtering and analysis of open-source data could stop future epidemics from becoming global pandemics.

Private vs public: predicting and preparing for future pandemics
Michael Bartos, Australian National University
The race is on to establish more agile governance that recognises pandemic preparedness and response as a global public good.

Pandemic signs still in the sewers
Kumitaa Theva Das, University of Science Malaysia
Monitoring of wastewater and being alert to unusual cases could help shut pandemics down before they start.

Lessons from volcano warnings in predicting the next pandemic
Carina Fearnley, University College London
Volcano warning systems are fine-tuned and sensitive to a myriad of factors. They are our best model for pandemic alerts.

The problem with pandemic warnings is people
Jason Thompson, University of Melbourne, and Rod McClure, University of New England
Social modelling to prepare for pandemics needs more emphasis on the social.

Finding the right tool to predict when hospitals need resourcing
Neville Calleja, University of Malta
Knowing when the hospital system could be overwhelmed is key to managing a pandemic. Finding the right predictor save lives.

Scientists, working together, can prevent future pandemics
Grace Wongge, Monash University Indonesia
An interdisciplinary ‘One Health’ approach and strong decision-making are our best defence against the next zoonotic-disease outbreak.

Streamlining Indonesia’s pandemic warnings
Iwan Ariawan, University of Indonesia
Indonesia’s health systems work well at local level but cannot provide adequate nationwide pandemic warnings. For those, a new system is needed.

Editors Note: In the story “Pandemic warning systems” sent at: 21/03/2022 12:37.

This is a corrected repeat.

Are you a journalist? Sign up for our wire service