Image: Adobe Stock / angellodeco
Pandemics require information exchange and coordinated action at an international level. In this respect, the World Health Organization (WHO) assumes a central role. In 1999, the WHO called on each country to develop national pandemic plans. In Germany, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) has developed such an emergency plan. To contain a pandemic, the expertise of scientists from various research disciplines is needed. These challenges can only be mastered in an interdisciplinary fashion.
The World Health Organization (WHO) decides whether an occurrence of a disease is considered a pandemic. It monitors the occurrence of diseases and infections worldwide. Each country must also inform the WHO of any outbreaks of disease. The International Health Regulations (IHR), which are binding for all states under international law, are the basis. These regulations contain an evaluation scheme for classifying an outbreak of a disease in any country. If the assessment indicates that the disease could spread internationally, the country must notify the WHO within 24 hours.
Following notification, the WHO convokes an emergency committee. This committee decides on measures to contain the disease and prevent its spread. If this fails and the disease spreads across countries and continents, the committee classifies the event as a pandemic and declares a “public health emergency of international concern”.
Considering the thousands of cases of infection reported to the WHO since the International Health Regulations came into force in 2005, it has rarely been necessary to convene an emergency committee. As of 2020, only six public health emergencies of international concern have been declared. These six cases were: influenza A virus in 2009, human poliovirus in 2014, Ebola virus in 2014 and 2019, Zika virus in 2016 and SARS-CoV-2 in 2020.
Each country has a center designated for communication with the WHO, a national IHR focal point. In Germany, this is the German Joint Information and Situation Centre (GMLZ). The GMLZ is under the authority of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI). The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) coordinates all measures and reports in the country. The core task of the RKI is the prevention of communicable diseases, the early detection of infections, and the prevention of their further spread. The institute advises the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG), informs the public, and collates data from local health authorities.
If a pandemic has been declared, the Infection Protection Act is the basis for all further measures. It is applied, for example, to infectious diseases such as measles, cholera, Ebola, or COVID-19. The law allows the federal states to restrict various constitutional rights to prevent the spread of a virus. However, these restrictions must be proportionate. Constitutional rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, or right of personality may also be restricted.
Medical historian Alfons Labisch on personal rights in pandemic times: “The dispute will always be there.” (German, English translation below)
The Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (FLI) is the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health. It has its headquarters on the island of Riems. Among other things, the FLI's mission is to protect humans from zoonoses. Scientists conduct research on zoonotic pathogens in high-security laboratories. For example, the infectivity of the novel virus SARS-CoV-2 in different animal species was tested here. This provides information on whether farm animals such as pigs, chickens, or cattle could play a role in spreading a virus or whether certain animal species are particularly suitable as animal models. Animal models are used to study disease progression and to test active ingredients for vaccines and drugs. In addition, researchers want to understand how pathogens are transmitted from animals to humans.
Thomas Mettenleiter, head of FLI, about his research on ferrets: “We study and test vaccines and possible therapeutics, and investigate the basic relationship between pathogens and hosts.” (German, English translation below)
Another important research institution is the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) in Hamburg. It is Germany's largest facility for research on tropical and new infectious diseases. One focus of the institute is research on malaria and the transmission of viruses by mosquitoes.
To better understand zoonoses and pathogen transmission pathways, human and veterinary medicine must work hand in hand and share their specific knowledge. This is why Germany has established the National Research Platform for Zoonoses. Scientists working in the field of zoonoses research meet on this information and service network. They exchange information on aspects such as characterization of pathogens, development of infection models, diagnostics and prevention of zoonoses, vaccine development, and early warning systems.