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New data insights can help prevent pandemics, says health expert

Manisha Bhinge, Managing Director, Pandemic Prevention Initiative, Rockefeller Foundation in India, says that processes and strategies that were put in place during COVID-19 will become mainstream public health tools for the monitoring and surveillance of a host of other infectious/vector-borne diseases

January 24, 2023 10:27 pm | Updated January 26, 2023 10:38 am IST

Manisha Bhinge

Manisha Bhinge

When COVID-19 pandemic hit, the health systems of most nations were unprepared to deal with the public health crisis or the economic impact of the crisis. Two years hence, one of the key concerns being expressed at global health platforms is whether a future health emergency can be predicted and prevented.

“Pandemics can be prevented. We as part of the Pandemic Prevention Initiative, believe that we can use the new data insights at various levels -- clinical, genomic surveillance data or waste water and environment surveillance data, human behaviour -- can give us potential scenarios or trajectories of disease dynamics which will allow public health officials to launch credible interventions and decisions so that a potential pandemic can be prevented,” says Manisha Bhinge, Managing Director, Pandemic Prevention Initiative, Rockefeller Foundation in India.

Ms. Bhinge was in the capital to be part of the first Health Working Group meeting under India’s G20 presidency

Rockefeller Foundation has a 100 year tradition in public health and is credited with having created public health as a field in the early 20th century, supporting a whole range of philanthropic activities in science and medical advancements.

When COVID-19 struck, the Foundation, in partnership with the Government of India and the Centre of Cellular and Molecular Platforms (C-CAMP), RF invested in an initiative to scale up domestic manufacture of RT-PCR testing materials. It also invested in a consortium of research institutions, creating an alliance for pathogen surveillance through genomic sequencing for SARS CoV2 within India.

“COVID-19 might be on the wane but our effort will be to ensure that the processes and strategies that were put in place during COVID-19 will become mainstream public health tools for the monitoring and surveillance of a host of other infectious/vector-borne diseases which are our priority. All our partnerships are driving towards mainstreaming the capabilities and digital health tools that we built during the pandemic, so that these will continue to generate information to help public health officials take evidence-based decisions. The capabilities and technologies we backed for promoting RT-PCR testing for COVID can continue to be a platform for a wider suite of molecular tests for other pathogens. It is one way of ensuring that we are always prepared to meet the next health threat,” says Ms. Bhinge

The role of technology in health services delivery and that of science in evidence-based public health decisions was amply demonstrated during COVID-19 . It is both a challenge and an opportunity that this new-found fascination with science is sustained, for building adaptive and resilient health systems. Because going forward, only a resilient health system and a sustained evidence-based approach will help us tackle threats like climate change and the disruptions it will bring in a spectrum of disease dynamics, she points out.

The crippling impact that the pandemic had on many economies, especially on vulnerable populations, builds a strong case for increased investments to build a stronger health system and effective disease surveillance systems. The RF is working at the global level with the Pandemic Fund (created during the G20 Presidency of Indonesia last year), which is a collaborative partnership of nations and civil society organisations for financing critical investments in the health systems in low and middle-income countries -- strengthening diagnostics, disease surveillance, workforce development -- at regional and global levels so that outbreaks can be identified early and controlled, Ms. Bhinge says.

HWG1’s priorities thus reflect the need for continuing support for pandemic prevention and preparedness and building responsive and agile health systems in nations and the acknowledgement that technology is going to be the key in ensuring equitable and affordable access to quality healthcare.

Universal Health Coverage has been one of the key areas where the Foundation has been working since the past one decade

“While health financing is pivotal to achieving UHC, nations should also focus on crucial areas like capacity building, building a core workforce, service delivery networks and critical enablers who drives efficiency of and access to care. Ayushman Bharat’s insurance model is a promising start towards UHC but in a country like India with its diverse population and growing burden of non communicable diseases, it needs to evolve much further and look closely at the role of public and private health sectors, payment options, so that the specific needs of the population can be addressed,” Ms. Bhinge points out

Going back to the conversations at the HWG1 meeting, nations, even as they are struggling to come out of the pandemic crisis, might be staring at yet another in the immediate future, one triggered by climate change, she feels.

Till now, all conversations on climate change have been around fossil fuel and energy crisis. Changes in seasonality and climate conditions are expected to have a significant impact on a country like India, which has a sizeable burden of seasonal infectious and vector-borne diseases, apart from NCDs.

“Going forward, health issues triggered or aggravated by climate change is going to be more important than ever before but tangible data or evidence on the same is still elusive, without which it might be difficult to draw the attention of governments towards it,” Ms. Bhinge says.

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