Breaking the Cycle of Disruptive Global Epidemics

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana — The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: 284

Eighteen years ago, I returned to my home city of Toronto after completing my medical training in infectious diseases and public health. Within a few months of starting my academic medical career, a previously unknown virus emerged in China’s Guangdong province, rapidly spreading to dozens of cities around the world. One of those cities was Toronto, where it catalysed a deadly outbreak that went on for four long months, leading to the deaths of frontline healthcare workers and members of the public, while devastating segments of the local economy. That virus was SARS-CoV.

Today, we are in the midst of the worst public health crisis the world has experienced in a century caused by SARS-CoV2. This time the virus has disrupted more than just a few dozen cities; instead, crippling the entire planet and carrying in its wake profound global health, economic, and social consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has starkly revealed that infectious disease threats — whether arising from naturally occurring causes, accidents, or deliberate acts — can appear without notice and spread incredibly fast in our hyperconnected world. Therefore, to stay a step ahead of the next set of inevitable epidemic threats that humanity will face, the world will simply have to move faster and smarter.

While a convergence of global phenomena — from population growth to the disruption of wildlife ecosystems and rising global population mobility — appear to be accelerating the emergence and spread of dangerous pathogens, the world is concurrently experiencing an information revolution. With the rise of big data, artificial intelligence, and novel digital technologies, we now have the raw materials needed to spread knowledge around the world faster than any microbe.  

After witnessing first-hand how a tiny virus crippled an entire city during the 2003 Toronto SARS epidemic, I have spent my entire professional life working to build a global epidemic intelligence platform capable of rapidly transforming diverse global data into timely insights that empower actions to protect lives and livelihoods worldwide.

“Whoever saves a single life, it is considered as if they have saved the entire world.”

The Talmud

The platform harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to augment human capacity to monitor and track global threats, consumes and analyses vast amounts of global data on population mobility to anticipate how threats will spread, and integrates diverse global data on demographics (including climatic conditions, health systems, and other factors) to contextualise threats and assess local vulnerability to a diverse array of microbes.

But transforming data into insights is just half the battle. To build communities that are truly resilient to epidemic threats, insights must be translated into timely action. And those actions do not just fall to our valiant public health officials and frontline healthcare providers, but rather to the whole of society.

Read the latest OECD report on digital health: Empowering the health workforce: Strategies to make the most of the digital revolution

During the COVID-19 pandemic we have often spoken of “everyone being  in this together”, underscoring the need for each of us to play our respective parts to protect ourselves, and in turn, the world around us.

BlueDot is a social enterprise I founded seven years ago comprised of an eclectic group of physicians, veterinarians, ecologists, epidemiologists, geographers, data engineers and data scientists, software developers, and experts in human factors and health communications. We’ve had the rare opportunity during this pandemic to work with a multitude of public and private sectors organisations, doing the hard work of translating insights into actions that seamlessly integrate into the workflows of an organisation and its people. This includes partnerships with branches of government spanning public health, healthcare, defence, security, and agriculture, and with private enterprises that are working hard to protect the health and safety of their employees and customers across the globe, while mitigating against financial impacts that will disrupt livelihoods. Such efforts to build bridges across sectors are necessary not only to get ourselves out of the current pandemic as quickly and safely as possible, but are essential to prevent ourselves from getting into the next dangerous epidemic or pandemic.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Benjamin Franklin, 1736

In just the past decade, the World Health Organization has declared six epidemics to be “public health emergencies of international concern”. That averages to about one emergency every two years. At that pace, it is entirely conceivable that the world could find itself facing another epidemic threat before this pandemic is over, or shortly thereafter. If we collectively fail to remember the recent past, we may again find ourselves repeating it sooner than we would like. The COVID-19 pandemic has been, and continues to be, an incredibly painful experience for everyone: people, businesses, and governments the world over. But this moment also offers a rare opportunity to harness the power of big data and advanced analytics to prepare for tomorrow’s inevitable epidemic threats.

The clock is ticking.

Kamran Khan will be joining our OECD Forum 2020 series discussion Healthcare in the Digital Age, on 3 December 2-3:30pm. Find out more and register for free!

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Tackling COVID-19 Health Digitalisation

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Kamran Khan

Founder and CEO, BlueDot

Dr. Kamran Khan is a practising infectious disease physician and a Professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Toronto. He is also the Founder and CEO of BlueDot, a digital health company that combines the power of big data, human and artificial intelligence to help governments, private enterprises, and healthcare systems build resilience and readiness to infectious disease threats.

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