06 October 2021

Where we went wrong in tracking COVID-19 and how to fix it

The COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully clear that our global infectious disease monitoring system is not up to the task. Report after report points to missed opportunities for detecting and acting on the outbreak’s early signs and the devastating resulting loss of life.

© Denisismagilov | Dreamstime.com

© Denisismagilov | Dreamstime.com

Experts tell us the threat is becoming increasingly urgent. Infectious disease outbreaks are expected to happen more frequently as we grapple with a combination of habitat destruction, climate change, more people living in high-density cities and the emergence of antibiotic resistance.

A new policy brief for the T20 Summit to which IIASA researchers contributed outlines the current reporting and surveillance systems’ challenges and proposes opportunities for G20 leaders to address them. The authors appeal to G20 countries because they employ almost 90% of the world’s researchers and account for over 90% of global research and development expenditure. In other words, they are well positioned to advance innovative solutions for future pandemic control.

As the authors stress, disease reporting and surveillance systems must not only give us an early warning, but the ability to monitor an outbreak once it happens. This means recognizing the interconnections among people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.

The authors point out three key challenges. They say current early warning systems of pathogens are incomplete and fragmented, which means they are slow to identify outbreaks.

Once an outbreak is established, epidemiological surveillance systems don’t include enough detail to identify places and populations needing extra resources and intervention. For example, in the first 12 months of the pandemic, about 30% of all cases were reported without any indication of whether they referred to men or women. Finally, governance systems for surveillance for both pathogens and people are politicized, under-incentivized, and under-resourced.

“We see that in some settings scientists may be operating within systems where their capacity for prompt and transparent reporting is limited,” says IIASA Advancing Systems Analysis Program Director, Elena Rovenskaya. “Also, career structures and incentives for scientists usually prioritize peer-reviewed papers rather than work for collaborative information-sharing. As a result, timely and transparent reporting by scientists is currently not realizing its full potential.”

Rovenskaya and her colleagues propose three targeted solutions. First, they call for the establishment of a scientist-led health threat reporting and monitoring system. They call it an ‘Emerging Health Threat Data Platform’ and argue that it would require improved networking of scientists and a more efficient exchange and assessment of information on potential risks.

They also recommend the platform be subject to strict rules covering quality, independence and confidentiality. Further, the platform should consider all alerts in human, animal, and food sources that have the potential to effect human health.

Second, the authors urge incentives for scientist to participate in the platform, such as promoting the careers of publicly funded researchers based less on the number and quality of publications, and more on the societal impact of their research. This includes incentives for researchers to make data accessible; enhanced standards for data validation, harmonization, and reproducibility; and a system of fast and inclusive peer review.

Incentives should also extend to the private sector. Even during the current pandemic, many governments made arrangements with the private sector to access essential data. Whether information comes from publicly or privately funded scientists, the Emerging Health Threat Data Platform would contribute to the mission of the World Health Organization’s new Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.

Third, the authors urge G20 countries to offer funding and technical expertise to countries with fewer resources as they enhance their health data collection. This would include resources for reporting data linked to sex, age, and other demographics. In fact, as the authors point out, there is already a good model in place – global reporting for the HIV epidemic collects linked data and could be used as a model for other disease outbreaks.

“Many findings of the IIASA-ISC Strengthening Science Systems Report helped to formulate and substantiate the recommendations of this policy brief. Our work will be presented to state leaders at the G20 Summit in Italy on 30 and 31 October, and we hope that the suggested changes will make a difference between life and death when the next pandemic hits,” concludes IIASA Science Diplomacy Officer Sergey Sizov.


Bues, K., Hawkes, S., Kaplan, D., Rovenskaya, E., Ryan, J., Sizov, S., & Coggi, P.T. (2021). From Pathogens to People: Enhancing Reporting and Surveillance for more Effective Control of Disease Outbreaks. Think20 (T20) [pure.iiasa.ac.at/17441]

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Last edited: 06 October 2021


Elena Rovenskaya

Program Director and Principal Research Scholar Advancing Systems Analysis Program


Sergey Sizov

Science Diplomacy Officer Communications and External Relations Department


Ansa Heyl

Communications Manager and Deputy Head of Communications and External Relations Communications and External Relations Department

International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
Schlossplatz 1, A-2361 Laxenburg, Austria
Phone: (+43 2236) 807 0 Fax:(+43 2236) 71 313