OPN coronavirus11-1580637303337
Indonesian students are disinfected as they disembark at the Hang Nadim international airport in Batam, following their evacuation from the Chinese city of Wuhan due to the coronavirus outbreak. Image Credit: AFP

The outbreak of coronavirus has hit quickly and with dramatic effect. It has become the dominant story on all the front pages and is leading the news bulletins around the clock. Yet only a few days ago, it might have struck some of us as a news story of something happening “over there,” rather than something to worry about here in the UAE. But now the first case has been confirmed in the UAE by the Ministry of Health and Prevention. This adds the UAE to the over 20 countries where the virus has been confirmed. .

The emergence of this new coronavirus is a stark reminder that in today’s increasingly interconnected world, disease outbreaks anywhere are a threat to all of us everywhere. It only takes a matter of hours, days, or weeks for a global problem to arrive right here on our doorstep.

Rapid action is being taken. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other donors, has responded with great urgency to develop a new vaccine. Founded in 2016 in response to the Ebola crisis, CEPI is an organisation whose mission is to develop new vaccines against emerging infectious diseases before they become global health threats.

The greatest threat is if the disease reaches countries that don’t have the basic health infrastructure needed to treat the symptoms, prevent the spread, even to detect the virus.

- Hassan Damluji, deputy director of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, London

It has announced that it will fund three programmes to advance coronavirus vaccine candidates into clinical testing as early as June, which as CEPI CEO Richard Hatchett has said is up to a tenth of the time it took to develop an Ebola vaccine. But as fast as that is, even in the best-case scenario it would take the best part of a year to get into public use, and the disease has the potential to spread further and faster before we have a vaccine.

The greatest threat is if the disease reaches countries that don’t have the basic health infrastructure needed to treat the symptoms, prevent the spread, even to detect the virus. That’s why our foundation is supporting efforts in early detection and containment of the spread of the disease, especially in Africa, to try and curb what could rapidly become an epidemic. However, our efforts and those of other organisations stepping in quickly to tackle coronavirus are no substitute for strong primary health care and immunisation systems, which are the first lines of defence against existing and emerging global health security threats both at home and around the world.

UAE role in strengthening global health infrastructure

The UAE’s leadership has long played a critical role in strengthening global health infrastructure. The UAE is working with global partners to rid the world of deadly and debilitating scourges like polio, malaria and neglected tropical diseases that prevent millions of people from living healthy and productive lives. These efforts include convening global leaders to rally support to tackle preventable diseases, such as the Reaching the Last Mile Forum in November 2019 during which a remarkable $2.6 billion was committed to support global polio eradication efforts. The UAE is also helping to build regional expertise in disease elimination through critical infrastructure like the Global Institute for Disease Elimination in Abu Dhabi and providing on-the-ground support for polio eradication in hard to reach areas in Pakistan.

The rise in measles cases around the world, the continued outbreaks of Ebola, and now the new coronavirus provide a stark reminder of how vital it is that the world has the systems needed to vaccinate all children against the diseases we know about, and so that we are able to spring into action quickly when new diseases emerge. We need to continue to invest in the world-leading research and innovation work that has done so much to generate new vaccines. And we’ll need to work with countries around the world, including the UAE, to get it done.

Preventing the spread of virus

Later this year will see a major conference taking place in London which will bring countries together to commit their support to Gavi, the alliance set up 20 years ago which is responsible for vaccinating children in the world’s poorest countries. Bill Gates has often said that one of the best investments he’s ever made was to childhood immunisation by supporting Gavi. Gavi has helped protect an entire generation since its inception, vaccinating over 760 million children and saving 13 million lives. But nearly 20 million children worldwide — more than 1 in 10 — miss out on basic vaccines. The UAE has been a major supporter of Gavi, including hosting its midterm review in December 2018 which sought to assess its progress against meeting its vaccination rate targets.

For now, the Gates Foundation will collaborate with Chinese partners and continue to support efforts to increase surveillance and detection in Africa Union countries to prevent the coronavirus spreading there. But if we are to be protected in the future from coronavirus, Ebola and other new viruses we will have to ensure that we treat these problems at source, and continue to invest together in organisations like Gavi and CEPI that keep all of us safe.

— Hassan Damluji is deputy director of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, London. Twitter: @HassanDamluji