This Nigerian doctor has a tough new job: Stopping the next pandemic before it strikes
Chikwe Ihekweazu has taken on one of the toughest jobs in global health — leader of the new World Health Organization Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.
The Hub was created last fall to collect, analyze and share data on emerging diseases like COVID-19. The goal is to improve WHO's ability "to forecast, detect, assess and respond to outbreaks that threaten people worldwide," says Michael Ryan, executive director of WHO's Health Emergency Programme.
Ihekweazu, son of a Nigerian physician and a German professor, is the former head of Nigeria's Centre for Disease Control, a job he got a couple of years after blogging about the need for it. Educated as a physician in Nigeria, he earned a master's of public health in Germany, co-directed the national tuberculosis center in South Africa and worked as an epidemiologist in the U.K. The 50-year-old got high marks for leading investigations into more than a dozen disease outbreaks during his five-year tenure at the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control before being lured away by the WHO, along the way showing what a profile in Nature described as "a knack for gliding between cultures and pushing people to cooperate for the common good."
Ihekweazu started at the Hub in November. NPR called him to find out – can his team collect and analyze all the information needed to make the next pandemic not as bad as the current one?
On why the hub is needed given that there are already lots of places collecting data on emerging infections.
"Our role is to build a system to link all of that information more efficiently and more rapidly in order for the decision-making to be easier and not as sporadic and chaotic as it has been," says Ihekweazu. And it won't be just biological data – it will be information about travel patterns and behaviors like mask wearing – anything that can be used to predict how a new infection might spread.
Ihekweazu is hoping that the Hub's data and analysis will be thorough and compelling. "We have to get better at convincing leaders to use the data we provide and not their political instinct or whatever else their decisions are based on. And that's not easy," he says.
How his new job will compare to the investigations he's led of infectious disease outbreaks in Nigeria.
"The mandates and the missions are very similar. What is different is that in a country like Nigeria, we have a clear mandate from an elected government to investigate outbreaks and advise action. The challenge I think and the biggest difference in the World Health Organization is we're a little bit further separated from the political decision-making that can lead to action," he says. The Hub won't be able to enforce mask wearing or call for vaccination use or enact or lift travel bans. But it will, he says, be able to help countries understand, based on all the data available, whether those or other actions might stem a burgeoning infection.
Whether it will be problematic to get accurate and timely data from countries about infections that they might want to hide.
The WHO can't march into a country without some form of collaboration, but "most countries are willing and able" to collaborate, he says. A diplomat at heart, he won't identify any countries he's worried about. But he's vocal about the need for other countries to respect countries that discover new infections, as South Africa did with the omicron variant. "We're seeing one country, South Africa, doing all the right things in terms of sharing data, and then it receives really a backlash of varied decisions [regarding travel bans] by different countries using the same data."
Right now, he says, "Countries are deciding on their own narrow interpretation of risk, sometimes even against their own scientific advisers and sometimes even against their enlightened self-interest in the longer term. The biggest lesson I think I've drawn out of the response to Omicron is that our task is harder than I even thought it was."
Is he a scientist or a diplomat who'll have to convince countries to share their data?
"That distinction has caused a lot of harm," he says. "We all grew up mostly thinking of ourselves as scientists. But if we're not able to convince people and our leaders on what we are convinced about as scientists then we can't hand-on-heart say we have done our job well." But he admits diplomacy is not something scientists are trained to do. "So we've got to get better at it."
His vision of success.
"What we hope is that we can improve our ability to detect risk factors early on in a pandemic, address them and reduce the risks of small cluster of cases becoming an outbreak or an epidemic or a pandemic. There was a window of opportunity for that in this pandemic," he says.
"Ultimately, the political leaders will have the responsibility of making the decisions, but we have to provide them the best evidence possible, present that in a way that they can understand, appreciate and use in order to give them the best chance of making the best decisions or the right decisions."
Are you optimistic that the science will get through?
"There's a big trust deficit at the moment, we have a lot of rebuilding to do globally," he says. "I've always been a glass half full kind of guy, but I'm not naive to how hard it will be."
"The difficulty is not so much on how to collect and analyze the data – though that's not going to be easy," he says. "The challenge is going to be in giving national leaders the confidence to act on the science." Ihekweazu can't guarantee that the Hub will be able to prevent the next pandemic. "But we've got to give it a shot," he says.
Joanne Silberner is a freelance journalist and former health policy correspondent for NPR. She has covered global health issues since the outbreak of HIV.
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