Penalizing Progress: Reflecting on the Global Response to Omicron Variant

The Omicron COVID-19 variant has once again heightened transmission concerns around the globe. While the potential spread of this new variant and its impact on some of the world’s most vulnerable countries reinforces the need for a continued focus on building capacity and science infrastructure in the Global South, the response to its discovery—namely the travel bans imposed on South Africa and neighboring countries—exposes the unproductive practice of penalizing countries for transparent reporting.

The Problem of Disincentivization

South Africa built their capacity while combatting other epidemics like HIV/AIDS, resulting in one of the best surveillance infrastructures in the world. The advanced capability in epidemiology and data analytics is what allowed the nation to quickly identify Omicron. Though their scientists were praised for discovering and identifying the new variant in just a few short weeks, the country—which was gearing up for their summer travel season—became a travel pariah as many nations around the world issued travel bans.

Perhaps most unsettling about this approach is that these decisions were made in haste, without knowledge of where the variant originated. South Africa’s discovery is a function of its superior testing and analysis, and does not mean the variant originated there. Actions like travel bans are disincentives for such timely and transparent reporting, especially in low-to-middle income countries who are already on the losing end of equitable vaccine distribution. These and other forms of aggressive sanctioning effectively “shoot the messenger” and are counterproductive to a global health practice that should encourage a coordinated pandemic response.

For this reason, the Global Alliance of Foundations recently called on the G7 countries and multinational pharmaceutical companies to end unreasonable travel bans and lift restrictions on vaccine supply.  There is no evidence that country-specific travel bans stop transmission – at best they delay it – but we do know the grave effect that disincentivizing countries from sharing data and reporting new variants could have on COVID-19 or any infectious disease response. The next time a new variant is identified, the country affected might think twice about being as transparent as South Africa has been. Instead of creating disincentives for transparency and data sharing, we need to develop positive incentives if we ever want to create an effective global system of pandemic and epidemic surveillance.

As a recent article in Nature by Amy Maxmen points out, we have a precedent for offering countries greater support in exchange for data sharing: the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness (PIP) Framework. As Amy explains, “This agreement arose in response to Indonesia withholding influenza samples after being denied access to flu vaccines that were developed on the basis of such viruses. Under PIP, countries agreed to share influenza samples so that pharmaceutical companies can make diagnostics, drugs and vaccines — and in return, companies have agreed to give a portion of those products to the WHO so that it can equitably distribute them to countries.” Imagine the alternative scenario: instead of closing borders, we offer vaccines, tests, PPE, syringes, test tubes and more to a country that reports a spike in infection as a reward for being open and transparent. Building incentives for reporting could go a long way to prevent transmission and drive the rapid sharing of data to inform equitable and evidence-based policy. data.org strongly believes in data sharing, as our name implies, but we also believe that any mechanism to share data should be built on foundations of consent, credit, and equitable sharing of benefits.

Building Centers of Excellence to Power Pandemic Preparedness

Incentives are one piece of the pandemic-response puzzle. A recent article in the New York Times by Janeen Interlandi examined the difficulty of forecasting a health crisis and predicting a potential pandemic. It highlighted the challenges that epidemiologists continue to experience when accessing, collecting, and preparing data to establish good predictive models.

In her article, Interlandi wrote: “the quality of any given model, or resulting forecast, depends heavily on the quality of data that goes into it, and in the United States, good data on infectious-disease outbreaks is hard to come by: poorly collected in the first place; not easily shared among different entities like testing sites, hospitals and health departments; and difficult for academic modelers to access or interpret.”

The consortium behind Epiverse will contribute to combating the challenges described in Ms. Interlandi’s quote. We’re doing this by convening an inclusive group of scientists to co-design the type of open-sourced, privacy-enabled software that will make data analysis accessible, and facilitate global collaboration by making sure the same standardized tools are used to prepare, integrate and analyze data in different centers across the world. It will also strengthen future models by unlocking previously unavailable data sources from private entities, giving scientists more insights into the human behaviors that can lead to viral transmission.  

Creating the tools is only part of the solution. The current distribution of resources is weighted heavily in the Global North, which does not correlate to need. The emergence of this new variant further underscores the need to invest in capacity and centers of excellence around the world, particularly in low-to-middle income countries.

With this in mind, and with the support of Wellcome and The Rockefeller Foundation, we’ve funded the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the Medical Research Council Unit The Gambia (MRCG) at LSHTM to develop inclusive and equitable pandemic response solutions. Driven by data.org’s commitment to serve as a platform for partnerships, this is the inaugural Epiverse awardee in our growing global consortium.

Ultimately, we believe that strong incentives for reporting potential outbreaks, a global commitment to vaccine equity and the co-creation of interoperable tools to facilitate fast and rapid sharing of data, like those underway in the Epiverse initiative, are fundamental components to combatting the pandemic. The longer we have an unfair and inadequate response to the pandemic, the greater the likelihood of more viral mutations — and the longer this fight drags on.