Cameron’s stark warning on global pandemics ‘worse than Ebola’

Prime Minister David Cameron. (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
Prime Minister David Cameron. (Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire)
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David CAMERON is to urge fellow world leaders to “wake up” to the risk of future disease pandemics which could be even more devastating than last year’s Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

The Prime Minister will tell the G7 summit in Germany that Britain is ready to “lead the way”, with a team of “disease detectives” on permanent standby to fly anywhere in the world within 48 hours to identify and tackle new infections.

He will announce £20 million of Government money for a new UK Vaccines Research and Development Network to bring together pharmaceutical companies, academics and disease experts to focus on the most serious global health threats, such as Ebola, Lassa, Marburg and Crimean-Congo Fever.

Speaking ahead of the gathering of leaders of the world’s leading industrialised nations at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps, Mr Cameron warned that the next pandemic could be far more aggressive and difficult to contain than Ebola, which has infected 27,000 and killed 11,130 in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

While Ebola is transmitted only through bodily fluid, future outbreaks involving more virulent infections which can be passed on in the air by coughing could have even more devastating impacts, he warned.

“The recent Ebola outbreak was a shocking reminder of the threat we all face from a disease outbreak,” said Mr Cameron.

“Despite the high number of deaths and devastation to the region, we got on the right side of it this time, thanks to the tireless efforts of local and international health workers.

“But the reality is that we will face an outbreak like Ebola again and that virus could be more aggressive and more difficult to contain. It is time to wake up to that threat and I will be raising this issue at the G7 meeting.

“As a world we must be far better prepared with better research, more drug development and a faster and more comprehensive approach to how we fight these things when they hit.

“The UK will lead the way but we need a truly global response if we are to face down this threat.”

The new UK rapid reaction unit will be made up of six to 10 expert epidemiologists and infection control specialists ready to deploy at short notice to help countries round the world understand disease outbreaks and judge what response is needed.

A “reservist force” will also be established including hundreds of doctors, nurses and public health experts ready for call-up if the outbreak is not contained at an early stage.

Mr Cameron’s initiative comes after widespread criticism of the World Health Organisation’s sluggish response to the first reports of Ebola last year, and follows discussions with US president Barack Obama at the White House in January.

The PM will also pledge to make the results of UK-funded research into pandemic threats openly available to ensure understanding of the diseases is quickly shared. The UK will seek international agreement via the G7 for publication of results of all clinical trials of vaccines for relevant diseases.

Before joining host Angela Merkel, Mr Obama, French president Francois Hollande, Italian PM Matteo Renzi, Canadian PM Stephen Harper and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe for the two-day summit, Mr Cameron made clear that he will also seek to use the G7 gathering to maintain pressure on Russia over Ukraine.

The EU and US worked in concert to impose stiff sanctions on members of President Vladmir Putin’s inner circle and key sectors of the Russian economy in the wake of last year’s annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of the east of Ukraine by Moscow-backed separatists.

Russia was also ejected from the G8 group, resulting in this year’s slimmed-down summit line-up of seven.

But there are concerns that Greece - whose PM Alexis Tsipras is due to meet the Russian president on June 18 for talks on his country’s debt crisis - may break ranks and block renewal of the EU’s economic and financial sanctions at the end of July.

British officials said the PM wants the G7 to send a strong message to all EU capitals of the need to maintain pressure on Moscow until the full implementation of the Minsk peace agreement in Ukraine.

Mr Cameron will also seek continued commitment to international action against the Islamic State terror group in Iraq and Syria and support for UN envoy Bernardino Leon’s mission to find a political solution to the instability in Libya.

And he will call for political agreement by the end of 2015 on the proposed US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Negotiations on the free trade deal have now lasted more than 700 days since they were launched under the UK presidency of the G7 in 2013, Mr Cameron will say. And he will warn that every day that the deal is not concluded costs the world £630 million due to unnecessary tariffs and other trade burdens.

However, he will face opposition from protesters who have set up camp in the nearby town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and regard TTIP as a threat to European safety standards and national health systems.

Campaigners at Global Justice Now (GJN) said they expect a Europe-wide petition against the TTIP deal to hit two million signatures in the coming week.

GJN trade campaigner Guy Taylor said: “There is clearly no mandate for the G7 leaders to be pushing ahead with this disastrous trade deal.

“TTIP may bring some economic benefits for a tiny handful of the business elite, but for the rest of us it would mean compromising vital public services, the stripping of regulations protecting labour rights and the environment, and a dramatic erosion of democratic process.”

Adrian Lovett, Europe executive director of the One campaign, said the solutions to disease pandemics were “not rocket science”.

“Preparation requires investing in the fundamentals - health care workers and the basic supplies and systems around them - to ensure countries can respond not just to the next Ebola, but also to the everyday health challenges their citizens face,” said Mr Lovett.

“If we only build up external reaction forces without strengthening countries’ own health workforces, we won’t have truly learned lessons from this crisis.”