A pandemic is a global disease outbreak that represents a top global catastrophic risk. Influenza (flu), for example, transmits readily and can spread fast. Every year, up to 500,000 people die from flu. In years when pandemic flu occurs, the toll can rise well into the millions. The 1918 pandemic flu, the most severe of the four flu pandemics in the last 100 years, infected up to 40% of some national populations and killed 50-100 million people.
Pathogens with pandemic potential continue to emerge, and most of them are of animal origin (zoonotic). During the past 10 years alone the world has witnessed, among others, H5N1 avian flu, H7N9 avian flu, and two kinds of coronavirus: severe acute respiratory syndrome- SARS and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -MERS.
The World Bank has estimated that a severe flu pandemic could result in $3 trillion in global economic losses, equivalent to 4.8% of gross domestic product (GDP). Most of the losses would not be caused by disease directly, but rather by consumer reactions, labor shortages and cascading failures in economic and financial sectors. The U.S. government has warned of the potential for a severe flu pandemic to impact global security and stability.
Every year, 2.3 billion human infections occur in developing countries by zoonotic diseases, and 2.2 million die as a result. The burden on the poor is formidable, as they tend to live in close proximity to animals in communities with inadequate veterinary and human public health services. Such diseases diminish livelihoods, nutrition, food security, trade, and assets of poor households. Reducing this burden is a global development imperative. Increasing global pandemic prevention and preparedness is essential to achieve the global goals to end extreme poverty by 2030 and boost shared prosperity.
Managing pandemic risk is important for developing countries. A severe pandemic would harm health, economies, and communities everywhere, but especially in poor and fragile states. Pandemic prevention requires robust public health systems (veterinary and human) to detect contagion early, ensure correct diagnoses, and respond rapidly to defend against contagion.
The World Bank has estimated the cost of this essential, permanent, global infrastructure at $3.4 billion per year in all developing countries. The expected benefit is at least $37 billion per year, making such infrastructure a profitable use of public funds. The economic rates of return range from 50% to 123% per annum, depending on disease risk.
Yet although the threat posed by avian flu and other zoonotic diseases remains, country and donor investments in pandemic prevention and preparedness have decreased markedly in recent years.