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Arctic warming and microbial threats: Perspectives from IAP and EASAC following an international academies’ workshop

Biotechnology & Biosecurity
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A new workshop report by IAP sheds light on existing and possible future risks of harmful infectious agents emerging from thawing permafrost and ice in the Arctic region

The US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) together with the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) convened a workshop that briought together an interdisciplinary, international group of researchers and public health officials. On 6-7 November 2019 they met in Herrenhausen, Germany, to explore what is known and what critical knowledge gaps remain regarding existing and possible future risks of harmful infectious agents emerging from thawing permafrost and ice in the Arctic region. The workshop report 'Arctic warming and microbial threats: Perspectives from IAP and EASAC following an international academies’ workshop' is now available online at this link.

As explained by Robin Fears, Director of ESASC's Biosciences Programme and Project Coordinator at IAP,

the issues raised in the recent workshop, and described in the IAP-EASAC Perspective, are vitally important for the Arctic, and to the rest of the world in consequence of changes in the Arctic. In addition, however, the priorities identified are of great general importance for all of us in tackling infectious disease, whatever its environmental origin. This global relevance has become abundantly clear in the months elapsed since the workshop: the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all and vastly accentuates the scope of what will continue to be needed to prepare for and respond to pathogens. In an uncertain world, we do not know specifically what will be the future infectious disease threats, but we do know that they will come. The impacts of COVID-19 on individuals, families, communities, health services and economies are all the more distressing because, in many respects, these challenges were predictable. Academy networks and others have a long history of warning about the threats. For example, the IAP’s regional academy network EASAC in 2011 brought together a series of previous assessments to warn that “assumptions that most infectious disease had been conquered are now seen to have been misplaced”...”the public health problems are urgent”… “we continue to urge new models of collaboration, accompanied by new efforts to communicate about the issues to society-at-large.

Many of the specific recommendations made previously by EASAC and others are similar to the messages emerging recently from the Arctic workshop discussions: for example, developing improved surveillance and early warning systems; engagement with local communities; investment in fundamental science to understand environmental triggers and the biology of novel viruses; taking the One Health/Planetary Health perspective in reporting and response mechanisms; integrating national, regional and global collaboration for public health and economy objectives. While these challenges may seem to be relatively unchanging during the past two decades, and the recommendations rather generic, what is changing are the additional opportunities to act, brought within reach by the rapid pace of scientific advance. Thus, we now have the wherewithal to expand syndromic and other surveillance, develop rapid testing, and accelerate innovation – but, hitherto, the commitment to do so has not been a political priority. Do we now have the political will to invest in appropriate levels of public health preparedness, at an appropriate level of regional and global coordination?

One other consistent message, that is at the core of IAP’s goals, is the responsibility of the scientific community to advise policy-makers and other opinion leaders on the importance of using robust scientific evidence to inform policy options. This is not enough. The scientific community has long been aware that scientific collaboration is essential, we need to do more to explain that coordination in policy-making  between sectors and countries is equally important. We must redouble our efforts to urge decision-makers to act on public health in a spirit of global solidarity and in pursuit of equity and sustainability (as highlighed by the IAP Communiqué on COVID-19).

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