Hospital workers in Brooklyn, NY. lev radin/shutterstock
Hospital workers in Brooklyn, NY. lev radin/shutterstock

If there’s one thing the coronavirus emergency has taught us, it’s that humankind, for all our modern medicine and hand sanitizer, is still vulnerable to pandemic-driven disaster. Until science finds more universal solutions for viruses and infectious disease—possibly a very long time—government, philanthropy, NGOs and the public need a coordinated, global policy to prevent or at least minimize the health and economic impact of future pandemics.

For years, that has been the message sounded by people with experience in pandemic outbreaks, and now, mobilized by COVID-19, it is the impetus behind the newly formed Pandemic Action Network (PAN), a partnership founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Schmidt Futures.

The Pandemic Action Network describes itself as an “advocacy initiative to ignite a global movement to help accelerate an end to the COVID-19 pandemic and enhance our preparedness to stop future pandemics.” It will advocate for new policies, support and resources to ensure countries are better prepared to prevent, detect, and respond to pandemic threats.

“After each pandemic outbreak, there is incremental progress to solve a piece of the problem, but no full-scale, global approach,” said Gabrielle Fitzgerald, a veteran of pandemic response, CEO of Seattle-based action tank Panorama, and co-founder of the Pandemic Action Network. “If history is any indication, the world will eventually go back to normal, and none of the underlying systems or infrastructure necessary to deal with pandemics will be addressed.”

The Cycle of Panic and Neglect

Pandemic experts refer to the “cycle of panic and neglect”—the willingness of individuals and societies to act and spend during an emergency, and then to forget about it as soon as the threat appears to be over.

For example, said Fitzgerald, after the Ebola outbreaks in Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) proposed policy guidelines to minimize the potential harm of pandemics. “But there was not a lot of political will to execute those changes,” she said. “During the panic phase, people are willing to respond, but to evolve in preparedness, we have to break through the neglect cycle.”

The Gates Foundation is among those institutions that have pushed for a more proactive approach to viral threats. In 2017, as we reported, it helped catalyze the creation of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, in partnership with another top health philanthropy, the Wellcome Trust, and several national governments. The aim of the coalition, according to a press release at the time, was to develop “safe and effective vaccines against known infectious disease threats that could be deployed rapidly to contain outbreaks before they become global health emergencies.” Fast-forward three years, though, and a world that’s now been ravaged by the coronavirus for months finds itself a long way from developing a vaccine, much less manufacturing hundreds of millions of doses.

It’s not just national governments that have been far too complacent about the threat of pandemics. Few in philanthropy have paid much attention, either, as we’ve documented—despite the sector’s supposed strength at looking over the horizon in ways that elected leaders won’t. Beyond Gates and Wellcome, the small handful of funders who’ve been tuned in to biosecurity dangers include the Open Philanthropy Project, the Skoll Foundation and Vulcan, Inc. The trauma of COVID-19 would seem likely to bring more foundations into this mix. The launch of PAN, with backing from some newcomers to the pandemic funding space, suggests that is already happening.

“No One is Safe Until Everyone is Safe”

PAN’s focus is global—one of its core principles is that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”—a critical element in preparing for and fighting pandemics in a world built upon international travel and commerce.

The PAN initiative will also field its “For Humankind” effort to promote accurate information to help people around the world protect themselves from COVID-19. The effort will create education campaigns tailored for different countries, using celebrities and other prominent figures where possible. “Given that there are not yet any drug treatments or vaccines, information and behavior changes are still our best tools,” said Fitzgerald. “As we start to come out of lockdown, it will be important to have trusted voices echoing the messages of public health leaders.”

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, one of the founding members of the PAN initiative, has long been one of the few major philanthropies focused on basic science research. But the coronavirus emergency has sparked leadership there to reorient priorities and place more emphasis on global policy and advocacy. The foundation’s president, Harvey V. Feinberg—a doctor and expert on infectious diseases—has been closely involved in work around COVID-19.

“When advocacy-oriented work is critical to enabling the conditions for those outcomes to be achieved and to endure, projects like this can be strategic pieces of the puzzle that are important for us or our partners to support,” said Genevieve Biggs, special projects officer at Moore. “Rather than concentrating on new grantmaking, we’re taking a targeted approach in response to COVID-19—working with existing grantees to help them achieve our mutual long-term goals as they make their way through the crisis.”

Joining PAN is a growing list of multilateral organizations, private companies, foundations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Along with Gates Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Moore Foundation and Schmidt Futures, they include the CDC Foundation, Evoke, Evoke KYNE, Federation of American Scientists, Global Citizen, Global Health Strategies, Global Health Technologies Coalition, Goodbye Malaria, iHeart Media, Last Mile Health, Management Sciences For Health, NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative), ONE Campaign, PATH, Panorama, Project Everyone, Propper Daley, the Kolisi Foundation, U.N. Foundation, Wellcome and #PlayAPartTogether, a group of more than 70 gaming companies.

Share with cohorts