Competition and Pandemic Control

Recently I watched the TED speech of Larry Brilliant where he talked about the importance of ‘early detection and early response’ as key for any pandemic control plan. He also talked about the role of public databases like GPHIN in early detection of pandemics and competition it brought to reporting of pandemics. The following article from The Economist summarises some of current data sharing efforts on pandemic diseases;

“The Global Pandemic Initiative, formed in May, is a collaboration between the WHO and the CDC, together with IBM, a large computer firm, and over a dozen other groups. It is intended to develop “the use of advanced analytical and computer technology as part of a global preparedness programme for responding to potential infectious disease outbreaks.” One approach IBM hopes to take is to develop software that will help predict how diseases might spread.

Another new group wants to turn the entire process of identifying outbreaks on its head. Larry Brilliant, a former WHO official who helped to eradicate smallpox in India, dreams of an open-source, non-governmental, public-access network that would help the world move quickly whenever potential pandemics start brewing. He looks for inspiration to the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), an obscure programme run by the Canadian government that searches public databases in seven languages looking for early signs of disease outbreak.

Dr Brilliant, who is now the head of Google's philanthropy arm, made his wish known at the Technology Entertainment Design conference, an annual gathering in California of leading entrepreneurs and thinkers from the information-technology and entertainment industries. His speech so galvanised the gathered titans that he now has the backing of Sun Microsystems, Google and several big Silicon Valley venture-capital funds and investors. They are helping to develop a new “web crawler” that will expand GPHIN to track newspapers and internet blogs in 40 to 100 languages.

A reasonable objection to such a system is that it is based on press reports, not verified scientific data. Even so, its supporters argue that it could prove valuable. Press reports have the virtue of immediacy, and its results will always be subject to verification by the WHO and government authorities, of course. But its very existence might persuade them to act more promptly. After all, that is what GPHIN did a few years ago during the SARS outbreak, when it sounded the alarm and forced the authorities to respond. The direct result, in Dr Brilliant's words: “SARS is the pandemic that did not occur.”


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This page contains a single entry by Paul published on August 24, 2006 7:19 PM.

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