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‘What Africa will gain from WHO’s hub for pandemic, epidemic intelligence’

By Chukwuma Muanya
23 September 2021   |   3:07 am
Former Director General, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and first Director of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) new Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence

Ihekweazu targets 120 researchers for insights on infectious diseases

Former Director-General, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and first Director of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) new Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, will on November 1 fully resume duties in Berlin with a promise to assemble 120 researchers globally to help make the world better prepared for future public health emergencies.

Asked how the Hub would operate, Ihekweazu, in an interview with the journal, Nature, published yesterday, said: “One major plan is to harness collaborative intelligence. Our expected capacity is 120 researchers. But a good proportion of them won’t be from the WHO. They will visit for intervals, like six months or one year, to look intensively at specific issues.

“That will give the organisation the opportunity to bring in smart people with specific expertise and it will allow smart people who want to spend some time with the WHO to come into the organisation without feeling obliged to move permanently to Berlin or the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. This is how we’re attempting to enable the cross-fertilisation of ideas that we hope leads to greater insights around infectious disease threats.”

On how it feels to leave Nigeria during the COVID-19 pandemic, he said: “I will leave Nigeria physically for now but Nigeria is always in my heart. I am always thinking about how to make Nigeria better and how to make the continent work better.

“There’s a lot of talk right now about local vaccine manufacturing in Africa. But I think we need to go way beyond that. We need to inspire a whole new generation of young people to do science. And we need to attract Africans that are working in universities around the world to come back to the continent and help build up capacity.

“The WHO Hub is my next assignment. And I believe that I can do a lot of good for the continent from there. But together, with many other Africans, I am focused on the long game. We want to make sure that we are better prepared for the next pandemic and that we aren’t just participants in the consumption of vaccines and other technologies but are also participants in the basic science and research that leads to them.”

Asked the biggest problems he hopes to fix and why he would want to solve them at the WHO, Ihekweazu said: “I want to make the mechanics of reporting disease-related information easier and also demonstrate that the WHO can use that data to help countries that share it. One way to do that is to enable countries to derive value from their own data.

“I wouldn’t want to do this at a venue other than the WHO. I know that different countries are creating hubs, as are some big donors. They may be able to analyse publicly available data but they won’t have the same access to information from countries that the WHO does.”