Business

Davos: Western world ‘vulnerable’ to epidemics, warns Ebola expert

  • 21 January 2015
  • From the section Business
Prof Peter Piot

The Western world is "vulnerable" to epidemics such as Ebola, and must invest more in researching vaccines, a leading scientist has warned.

Prof Peter Piot told the BBC that developed nations would be in "deep trouble" if they failed to adequately prepare for another outbreak.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, he urged global leaders to take a "long-term view".

Public health policies must "transcend politics and borders", he said.

Prof Piot co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976, and is now in charge of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

He said the UK was relatively well prepared for an outbreak, and praised NHS staff who travelled to West Africa to combat the recent Ebola epidemic.

The threat of Ebola, and other infectious diseases such as influenza and Sars, are set to be discussed in Switzerland this week, as politicians and business leaders from around the globe gather for the annual WEF.

'We weren't prepared'

Prof Piot, who will address the WEF alongside leaders of pharmaceutical companies and West African leaders, said he wanted audiences to understand that "we weren't prepared enough" for the Ebola outbreak that spread across Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia last year.

Sitting in the heart of Davos' main conference centre, the affable Belgian, who previously helped lead the World Health Organisation's fight against Aids, said: "I bet everything I have that there will be other outbreaks."

Image copyright NIH/SPL
Image caption A trial of an Ebola vaccine started in the US this month

"Our world is getting more vulnerable to big epidemics, because of population expansion, huge mobility and more intense contact between animals and people.

"My concern," he said, "is that when [the Ebola outbreak] is over we will just forget about it. We need to be better prepared and we need to invest in vaccines and treatment.

"It's like a fire brigade - you don't start to set up a fire brigade when some house is on fire."

Prof Piot praised the work done by institutions such as the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, but he said that Europe needed a force that can be deployed to countries beyond its borders when infectious diseases spread.

"There is always tension between the sovereignty of a country and the need to fight epidemics because they are a risk for the world as a whole… in economic terms, its a global public good."

Drugs firms

Speaking of the time he discovered Ebola, Prof Piot said that "after the first outbreak in 1976 we all thought this is a virus that is actually relatively easy to contain".

He said: "I never thought it could affect entire nations, capital cities".

But Prof Piot said pharmaceutical companies were not to blame for failing to develop a vaccine for Ebola in the four decades since.

Until the recent outbreak in West Africa, there was "neither a commercial incentive nor a public health rationale for dealing with Ebola," he explained.

However Prof Piot did have some good news to impart - he was cheered by the Ebola vaccine trials currently taking place.

"When there will be the next Ebola epidemic, we will have a vaccine."

Image caption Figures accurate to 8-11 September, depending on country. Death toll in Liberia includes probable, suspect and confirmed cases, while in Sierra Leone and Guinea only confirmed cases are shown