WASHINGTON - When an infectious disease strikes, every day matters. The longer it takes to spot, investigate, and contain an outbreak, the more lives we may lose. That is why we must prepare our public-health data systems for the next pandemic and revamp them to tackle the current one. COVID-19 is far from over and in many countries, it is getting worse. By investing in digital technologies now and publishing anonymized data online, policymakers can strengthen their response to the ongoing pandemic, and act quickly when another public-health threat appears.
An important first step toward more robust pandemic preparedness is reporting of hospitals’ admissions data to national health officials as patients arrive. An unusually large number of admissions, even in the absence of laboratory testing, could be the first warning sign of a deadly new threat. Reporting admissions data together with diagnoses, such as pneumonia, can enhance the value of this stream of daily data, and potentially enable public-health officials to nip the next pandemic in the bud.
Countries should also build systems that enable laboratories to report their results in real time. After the 2002 SARS epidemic, China invested heavily in an infectious-disease reporting system linking all hospitals in the country directly to central health authorities. This allowed officials to view lab results and diagnoses immediately. Chinese public-health officials have previously used the system to investigate and contain outbreaks of avian influenza, information that could be even more valuable if the Chinese authorities shared it with the rest of the world.
This arrangement is not perfect. When the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 first emerged in China, the system broke down when local health officials delayed reporting. Still, digitizing and linking infectious-disease reporting systems is a wise investment, and will give countries a betThe content herein is subject to copyright by Project Syndicate. All rights reserved. The content of the services is owned or licensed to The Yuan. The copying or storing of any content for anything other than personal use is expressly prohibited without prior written permission from The Yuan, or the copyright holder identified in the copyright notice contained in the content.