Pandemic Intelligence Chief Brings Data, AI to Omicron Fight


Just days after Chikwe Ihekweazu took the reins of the World Health Organization’s new pandemic intelligence hub, a new and heavily-mutated variant of the coronavirus appeared on scientists’ radar. Omicron prompted countries to close their doors to southern Africa and threatened to widen an already worrying gap in access to vaccines.

Now Ihekweazu, a veteran epidemiologist who previously led the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, aims to counter global discord with data. The center in Berlin plans to collect and share information to help governments predict, detect and respond to health emergencies more quickly, relying on artificial intelligence and other tools. He hopes to spur collaboration at a time when many countries are putting their own interests first.

The hub, set to bring on as many as 120 people over the next couple of years, is advancing along with plans for an international treaty to bolster health defenses and other programs aimed at making sure countries are better equipped to tackle the next crisis. Ihekweazu, 50, spoke with Bloomberg, and his remarks have been edited for clarity and length.

What does omicron mean for the hub and how are you responding?

It’s shown us how difficult the political landscape is, and that global governance that can guide decision making in our own joint best interest is just not strong enough. That’s why other things happening in parallel, such as the pandemic treaty, hopefully will lead to a better place.

Every nation state feels entitled to make what they consider — even sometimes against the advice of their own scientists — the most politically expedient decision. We are not naive about the challenges, but we also see a lot of opportunity. What happened with South Africa sharing their data is not a coincidence. It seems very gloomy to be honest, but I do think that as we develop not only the technical competence, but also the trust which comes with working together, we can provide a counter influence to the dominant theme of looking at the TV every morning and wondering which countries have stopped which other countries from crossing their borders. 

How do you assess the risks posed by omicron and future variants?

We are programmed to think about how strong we are, the resources we have as individuals or countries. How big is our army? It’s not about how big our army is, it’s about how much it can interact with the landscape around it to mitigate the impact of the threat. The world always looks for simple answers. We are not equipped to think about and respond to those complexities, and could stumble into a really difficult scenario.

We’re still in the middle of this pandemic, but what do you see as the biggest vulnerabilities in the future?

The more you understand viruses, the more respect you have in terms of the limitations of our ability to respond.

What worries me is that I do not think that the normal capitalist, private-sector approach to developing therapeutics, diagnostics and vaccines is suitable in responding to existential threats to humanity. If we rely on vaccine development and distribution to be so heavily skewed to countries that can afford them, irrespective of where the actual risks are coming from, unless we’re able to bridge this gap a little more, we will not be able to efficiently respond to the threats that are present today and will emerge in the future.

What kind of approach is needed instead? Health advocates have pushed for a TRIPS waiver on enforcement of intellectual property rules. 

If I had the solution, I’d win the Nobel Prize. Right now, we almost take an ideological view. Am I in support of a TRIPS waiver or not? Do we have a treaty? And we’re just beginning to talk about the treaty. Every line will be argued about, and every verb, but if we wait 20 years to do this, we will pay a big price. There was a time we thought the world was coming a lot closer together, but right now we seem to be further apart than ever before.

How is this hub going to use data and technology in a smarter way to help nations move more quickly?

Member states are where the primary responsibility for detection and response actually lies. Our role is to support them. They’ve been improving their own systems, and in the last two years that has accelerated. But almost every country is doing that on their own. There’s no connectedness between them. They’re not learning from each other. And we as WHO haven’t historically provided countries as much support as we could in this particular area of analytics, data and decision making.

This is not just about a center in Berlin that is going to suck out the data and make some magical decision. If that was the case, I probably wouldn’t be the right person to lead it, but this is really to work within the organization, and with countries, to leverage our learning. A lot of things have been learned. A lot of technologies exist already. It’s about pulling them together.

We’ve had Covid vaccines for 12 months. How would you describe the impact and the questions that remain?

I always first remind people of the incredible impact vaccines have had more generally, even before we get to Covid, in terms of lives saved. As much as we tell the story of the miracle of vaccines, the impact is variable. The vaccine we use against tuberculosis has never really stopped TB in itself. It prevents serious forms of TB. And we have things like yellow fever vaccines, where one shot really protects you for life, and in between there’s everything. That’s a very difficult message. 

Because of our high anticipation of a vaccine, maybe to an extent we oversold its potential, or people did not understand fully. In most countries where there has been sufficient supply, most people have had the vaccine, but there is still a pocket of people that are hesitant for whatever reason. In a context like this, where there’s so much infection around and there’s so much risk, that has become increasingly relevant in mitigating spread.

Already, a few days after the detection of a new variant, colleagues are working in real time to adapt existing vaccines. The speed is incredible. But how do we get better at distribution?