Dr Britta Lassmann of the International Society for Infectious Diseases explores the role of digital innovation in combating the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr Britta Lassmann, interview by Rosemary Lobley.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the worldwide need for further innovation in and around the healthcare sector, as well as the ongoing necessity of co-operation and collaboration to fight and contain the virus.
Dr Britta Lassmann, Programme Director for global non-profit the International Society for Infectious Diseases, tells HEQ about the role of digital innovation and other factors in addressing the spread of infection.
How can digital solutions help with the detection and prevention of infectious diseases?
Digital disease surveillance systems, also called informal or innovative disease surveillance systems, rely on local media, professional networks, and on-the-ground experts to highlight emerging infectious diseases and outbreaks in near real time. Examples include the Programme for Monitoring Emerging Diseases (ProMED) published by the International Society for Infectious Diseases; HealthMap; and the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN).
These monitoring and reporting tools are useful adjuncts to traditional disease surveillance as they require fewer resources, encounter fewer bureaucratic barriers, operate globally and are not restricted to reporting on select pathogens only. They are uniquely positioned to pick up signals of emerging disease threats early, highlight cross-border developments, and to provide contextual information during epidemic transition points, such as when new viral strains emerge.
How important is international collaboration and knowledge sharing in healthcare and research, particularly in terms of combating a global pandemic?
Openly accessible, trusted data sources are critical to addressing cross-border outbreaks and other health threats. It is paramount that data sharing mechanisms exist which facilitate the rapid sharing of a wide range of data, from surveillance data on infectious diseases to genomic information, population mobility data and demographic data. Combined, these data sources inform research efforts and policymaking at the local and global level. Interoperability of data sources is key as is the provision of up-to-date data, preferably in real time.
Is further support or funding needed to develop a comprehensive global response to the pandemic? What more could be done at a policy level?
The International Health Regulations (IHR) is a legally binding instrument by which 196 state parties are required to acquire core capacities for surveillance of public health threats, as well as provide notification of events of potential global concern but remains hindered by concerns of enforceability, among others. More needs to be done to increase the enforceability of the International Health Regulations taking regional differences into account and to accelerate the capacities of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Aside from the pandemic itself, what are the most pressing challenges currently facing research and treatment of infectious diseases?
COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. Adequate funding needs to be provided to advance the understanding, diagnosis and treatment of emerging infectious disease threats but also to put the necessary infrastructure in place to be prepared ahead of the next outbreak. Efforts that create platforms for the development of vaccines and therapeutics, harmonised data collection and sharing mechanisms that can be easily pivoted towards different emerging pathogens and the ethical frameworks underpinning these efforts are urgently needed. Innovation needs to take place between outbreaks. When we are faced with an outbreak, response operations become the priority. Funding that supports regional and global collaborations with an eye on sustainability should be prioritised.
Epidemic response efforts are also faced with the politicisation of science and the rapid spread of misinformation – in the case of COVID-19, misinformation has abounded regarding the virus itself and some of the response efforts, most notably vaccination efforts. Science and public health should never be politicised. For example, in the US, wearing or not wearing a mask has become a political statement. This is unacceptable. Policy decisions need to be based on data and available evidence to best protect the health of the people and the communities where they live.
TB, antimicrobial resistance, malaria, respiratory infections and gastrointestinal infections remain infectious disease priorities globally.
With so much focus on COVID-19, is there a possibility that the risks posed by non-COVID diseases may be overlooked?
As observed during previous crises, the indirect morbidity and mortality effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may be as important as the direct effects of the pandemic itself. With regards to other infectious diseases, there are widespread disruptions to HIV, TB and malaria service delivery programmes globally with shortages in medical supplies, treatments and diagnostics. It is estimated that the disruption of routine childhood immunisation services across the globe puts at least 80 million children under one at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio, yellow fever, typhoid, cholera and tetanus. The effects of the disruption to these and other, non-communicable disease programmes including mental health and maternal health programmes will be seen for years to come.
Britta Lassmann MD
International Society for Infectious Diseases