Recently, GVN was hosted in Washington to tell its story to a high-powered group of diplomats, business leaders, media and public policy gurus, all with the view of discussing the importance of the Global Virus Network within the context of national security. We were hosted by one of GVN’s newest Board Members, Franco Nuschese, who worked in partnership to put the event together with a long-standing supporter and GVN Board Member, Raj Shah, and his wife Bharti.
In describing the need for a GVN, Dr. Robert Gallo, co-founder of GVN and its Scientific Director, focused attention first on AIDS. In the 1980’s, when he co-discovered HIV as the causative agent of AIDS and developed the blood test, there was no pre-existing network of scientists capable of tackling quickly a novel disease or pathogen. Dr. Gallo offered that if a GVN had been in place when AIDS was first understood to be a novel disease, the global community would have been much better prepared to tackle it. Drugs and prevention strategies would have been developed sooner, blood tests would have been distributed even faster, and countries would have been held accountable, saving millions of lives and untold suffering.
He went on to consider SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003. “When SARS was first discovered in China, first, the government under-reacted, then they overreacted.” He went on to note that if SARS broke out again in China, the hope would be that the China GVN, now constituted, would advise the government on appropriate steps – all of this based on credible, objective science. “The GVN offers help,” he added.
Let’s put the 2003 SARS outbreak in an economic context to make a key point: new viruses can cause governments and businesses to come to a screeching halt. Between February and March 2003, SARS, which causes a particularly fierce form of pneumonia, was identified in southern China, and later Hong Kong, Canada, Vietnam and Singapore. A new form of coronavirus was ultimately detected as the culprit. As health officials worked to identify the causative agent of the disease and understand its spread, people and businesses started to make decisions to protect themselves. Deals were put off. Travel delayed. Schools closed. Healthcare workers and entire neighborhoods quarantined. Looking back now on the economic costs, the cumulative result of these decisions totaled about $50 billion, largely due to losses in tourism, retail and trade as people cancelled trips and business deals due to fear about the transmissibility of this unknown pathogen. Corporations with a major presence in Asia took the biggest hits. Even outside of Asia, economic impacts were enormous. One study from the city of Toronto, for example, shows that the 2003 outbreak of SARS cost that city about $950 million.
The public health community has long argued that health is too important to be left to the health sector alone. Looking at novel viruses through that lens, it is clear that the business sector, governments, and community groups must work together with scientists and health care providers to fully prepare for new viruses on the horizon. GVN’s scientists comprising 30 institutions in 23 nations are ready to engage with partners in every sector as we safeguard the health of the global community.