WEF: New epidemic risks pose as big a threat to businesses as climate change

Businesses have been warned that a new era of infectious disease outbreaks could pose an economic and operational risk as great in scale as climate change over the coming decades, urging them to consider the steps they should be taking to mitigate the threats.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the Harvard Global Health Institute, today released a white paper that details why and how the business community should contribute more to manage the threat and impact of infectious disease on societies.

‘Outbreak Readiness and Business Impact: Protecting Lives and Livelihoods across the Global Economy’, describes the business risk posed by a new era of epidemic risk, which can no longer be thought of exclusively in terms of rare but devastating events like global influenza pandemics. The white paper offers recommendations to help companies more appropriately understand risks, reduce exposure and act on opportunities for public-private cooperation to optimally prepare for and mitigate these risks.

The Forum’s Global Risks Report 2019 describes a world vulnerable to increasing naturally emerging infectious disease threats and risks posed by revolutionary new biotechnologies. It warns that despite considerable progress, the world remains ill-prepared to detect and respond to outbreaks and is not prepared to respond to a significant pandemic threat.

Vanessa Candeias, head of the system initiative on shaping the future of health and healthcare and member of executive committee at the World Economic Forum, said: “Outbreaks are a top global economic risk and – like the case for climate change – large companies can no longer afford to stay on the sidelines. Business leaders need to better understand expected costs of epidemics, mitigate these costs and strengthen health security more broadly.”

While potentially catastrophic outbreaks may occur only every few decades, highly disruptive regional and local outbreaks are becoming more common and pose a major threat to lives and livelihoods. Recent years have seen nearly 200 epidemic events per year. This trend is only expected to intensify due to increasing trade, travel, population density, human displacement, deforestation and climate change. Further, the number and diversity of epidemic events - such as influenza, Ebola, Zika, yellow fever, SARS, MERS-CoV and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, among other threats - have been increasing over the past 30 years.

Peter Sands, research fellow at the Harvard Global Health Institute and executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said: “For individual businesses, developing a better understanding of infectious disease risks and how they can be managed has clear financial benefits. For policy-makers, the better that businesses manage such risks, the more resilient the overall economy will be. Moreover, when business leaders are more aware of what’s at stake, maybe there will be a different dialogue about global health – from being a topic that rarely touches the radar screen of business leaders to being a subject worthy of attention, investment and advocacy.”

Although rarely emphasised in businesses’ risk considerations, recent work on pandemics quantifies how massive the potential economic losses from infectious disease outbreaks can be and how they can extend far beyond the original outbreak’s footprint. Among the data included in the WEF report, were estimates indicating that the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa cost $53bn, and the 2015 MERS outbreak in South Korea cost $8.5bn. According to the World Bank, only 39% of the economic losses are associated with effects on infected individuals, with the bulk of the costs resulting from healthy people’s change of behaviour as they seek to avoid infection.

In addition to the report, the research team has produced a prototype corporate infectious disease risk dashboard, meant to enable companies to visualize estimates of expected costs to their business associated with infectious disease outbreaks.

At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2019 in Davos this week, the Forum and its partners will be aiming to advance activities to strengthen public-private cooperation for global health security in areas of vaccines; data science; travel; communications; and supply chain and logistics.

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