Global research team highlights shortfalls in World Health Organisation's influenza strategy

An international team of health and legal experts has warned that the world is unprepared for an influenza pandemic, despite a newly published World Health Organisation (WHO) strategy on influenza.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the experts led by Dr Mark Eccleston-Turner from Keele University say that the strategy, published to mark 100 years since the 1918 ‘Spanish flu pandemic’, does not go far enough in addressing the global threat of pandemic influenza.

In creating the strategy, the group says, the WHO has shown the ambition and foresight required to ensure that the world can be better prepared for the next influenza pandemic, but there are key gaps which means the strategy cannot be relied upon alone to ensure the world is prepared.

Dr Eccleston-Turner led the publication of the report and worked alongside experts from the Centre for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.

Dr Eccleston-Turner, an expert in Global Health Law, said: “When it comes to pandemic influenza, it is always a case of ‘when’ the next pandemic hits, not ‘if’. Therefore, preparedness is key.

“The fact that the WHO has published this new strategy acknowledging this threat is a positive sign, however, several key problems are not addressed in the strategy. The first is problems in the sharing of viruses. Concern has been expressed for a while that countries are slowing down or simply refusing to share samples of influenza viruses with the global community. This has a significant impact on our preparedness activities – we need to know early on what viruses are circulating, in order to develop vaccines.

“The strategy does recognise that once a pandemic begins, a vaccine probably won’t be available for several months. Non pharmaceutical interventions will therefore be crucial – things like social distancing, closing schools, or preventing mass gatherings. Although non-pharmaceutical interventions form part of the response outlined in the strategy, there is little guidance or detail regarding these methods, and how to ensure they are implemented in a way which is grounded in scientific evidence, and is respectful of human rights.”