Analysis

The WHO’s New Pandemic Center Isn’t Ready for Action

For now, the health agency’s newest hub is mostly just for show.

By , a reporter based at the United Nations.
Angela Merkel and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attend the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence’s opening.
Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), attend the opening of the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence in Berlin on Sept. 1, 2021. Pool/Getty Images

Last September, Germany’s soon-to-be-retired chancellor, Angela Merkel, inaugurated a new World Health Organization (WHO) hub in Berlin that has one main mission: preventing another pandemic from spreading the way COVID-19 did. The then-chancellor said during the COVID-19 pandemic, “experts from around the world have been expanding their knowledge at an incredible rate and sharing it to decode the coronavirus.”

Merkel cut the ribbon in front of the new center alongside Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general. She did so in front of a gray wall with the center’s name on a plaque, saying: “The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence was inaugurated on 1 September 2021.” However, what they really inaugurated was a fake slab of concrete propped up in the middle of a Berlin event venue.

Although the glamorous event, attended by top names in global health, government, and other sectors, celebrated the opening of the WHO’s new venture, it was mostly just for show. The new hub’s mission is admirably ambitious. But it’s unclear how a highly political and notoriously bureaucratic international organization will succeed in implementing what’s being billed as a startup-style project.

Last September, Germany’s soon-to-be-retired chancellor, Angela Merkel, inaugurated a new World Health Organization (WHO) hub in Berlin that has one main mission: preventing another pandemic from spreading the way COVID-19 did. The then-chancellor said during the COVID-19 pandemic, “experts from around the world have been expanding their knowledge at an incredible rate and sharing it to decode the coronavirus.”

Merkel cut the ribbon in front of the new center alongside Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general. She did so in front of a gray wall with the center’s name on a plaque, saying: “The WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence was inaugurated on 1 September 2021.” However, what they really inaugurated was a fake slab of concrete propped up in the middle of a Berlin event venue.

Although the glamorous event, attended by top names in global health, government, and other sectors, celebrated the opening of the WHO’s new venture, it was mostly just for show. The new hub’s mission is admirably ambitious. But it’s unclear how a highly political and notoriously bureaucratic international organization will succeed in implementing what’s being billed as a startup-style project.

More than three months after the hub’s inauguration, it is hardly operational. A handful of employees, mostly contractors, initially worked from a temporary office in Berlin, but are now working from Geneva or at their homes elsewhere in the world as they wait for their permanent office to be opened.

One key piece of the new hub’s puzzle, however, has at least been found: the head of the new venture. Chikwe Ihekweazu, a Nigerian epidemiologist who has previously acted as the head of Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control, is in charge and currently lives in both Berlin and Geneva to get this ambitious project started. Ihekweazu has lived and studied in Germany in the past, so he was a natural candidate to lead the project.

“We are trying to solve a global problem,” Ihekweazu said in an interview at his Berlin office in late November. “We are part of a global member state organization, and we have to deliver value to those member states.”

For Ihekweazu, the hub’s biggest challenge will likely be political, meaning making sure the hub gets data from as many countries and agencies as possible, a key feature and problem of WHO internal dynamics.

Axel Pries, dean of the board of Charité hospital in Berlin, a strategic partner of the hub, also believes the biggest challenge is going to be political rather than technical: “The WHO is the worldwide entity for health, but it’s not a ruling entity,” he said. “It has to rely extremely on the willingness of individual member states to adapt to certain standards like international data exchange formats.”

At the September 2021 event, Germany’s then-minister of health, Jens Spahn, made the new WHO venture sound partly like a startup and partly like a WHO office. Maike Voss, managing director at the German Alliance for Climate Change and Health, agrees the hub’s persona fits the city it’s based in. “The narrative around the hub is very techie, which fits Berlin, with the techy start-up scene, which is very pushed by also the German [former] health minister, [who is] very into these kinds of topics and digitalization,” Voss said.

“Viruses move fast, but data can move even faster,” Ghebreyesus tweeted when the hub was opened. To ensure the flow of data beats the next virus, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing can be useful to gather and organize key data. However, people involved in the hub recognize it’s currently unclear as to how they will go about using these new technologies and what specific ones can be used. The hub is supposed to be equipped with a supercomputer, but no such technology is yet available to them.

Johanna Hanefeld, head of the Centre for International Health Protection at the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s equivalent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another strategic partner, believes using new technologies will be essential: “I think there is a lot of potential in using AI methods for data mining because we have these large-scale data,” she said. “All these data sciences are developing rapidly. I think the computational aspects of that really have a massive potential.”

The hub’s director has a more traditional vision of what the center will do. When he was approached to lead the venture, he said, “if this is going to be something in Berlin that is going to use artificial intelligence by suckering data from different sources and coming up with magical solutions, I’m probably not the right guy for the job.” Yet, he got the job.

The WHO intends to use the hub to gather information about disease incidence and combine it with information about the context the data was sourced from to gain “a more complete understanding of risk, creating an opportunity for better, more informed policies and decisions,” according to a pamphlet on the project. The document emphasizes the terms “collaborative intelligence” and “multidisciplinary approach.” Although some centers use similar approaches around the globe, it’s a first for the WHO, a United Nations specialized agency with some (though limited) political clout.

To succeed in that approach, the hub will need experts from a wide range of disciplines, which is something it doesn’t have yet, Voss said. “People implementing the hub in Berlin are very technical, very epidemiological, and not so much social scientists. Political scientists, they have so far none. I think that that can be a problem,” she said, adding that a lot of the hub’s work is going to rely on social science. The center hasn’t started hiring yet, and no job postings are available on the WHO’s website as of January 2022.

For the hub’s director, the more the team builds up, the more diversified it’s going to be. “We will have a core group of people working on the different data streams—from epidemic intelligence, from open sources (information on clusters of deaths), intelligence from pathogens from viruses, bacteria that are emerging new variants, and things like that,” Ihekweazu said. “Our traditional surveillance data streams and then all the other newer streams we are hoping to bring in—from animal health, from weather, from behavior, from the political context.”

For those in Berlin who have worked on developing the new WHO project, the hope is it’s only a starting point. “There will be a training aspect to this, so it will be a center of excellence,” Hanefeld said. “It will network with partners. I think it’s also been about looking at if you want to draw pandemic and epidemic intelligence, what are the capacities that you need, including at the national level.”

Despite all the resources and investments put into the hub, Sakiko Fukuda-Parr, a professor of international affairs at the New School in New York City, believes the idea even has its limit. As a social scientist, she has studied pandemic preparedness, and through COVID-19, she learned there is no correlation between being prepared and lower mortality rates.

“I realize that surveillance capacity using high-tech equipment and analytics is important,” Fukuda-Parr said. “But what I can’t get away from is the fact that our understanding of ‘pandemic preparedness’ is much too narrow and needs to look at the social and political determinants of contagion that would show the critical role of low-tech interventions like contact tracing/testing/quarantine and state capacity in public health, especially primary health care.”

Stéphanie Fillion is a French Canadian reporter specializing in foreign affairs based at the United Nations, where she writes for PassBlue and hosts UN-Scripted, a podcast on the U.N.

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