Director-General’s remarks at the inauguration of the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence

Your Excellency Dr Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany,

Your Excellency and my friend Jens Spahn, Federal Minister of Health,

Your Excellency Michael Müller, Governing Mayor of Berlin,

Distinguished guests, dear colleagues and friends,

Media – Ich freue mich, heute in Berlin zu sein, und danke Bundeskanzlerin Merkel, Bürgermeister Müller, Bundesgesundheitsminister Spahn und den Berlinerinnen und Berlinern für die herzliche Aufnahme und den wunderbaren Empfang.

It is an honour and a privilege to be here today for the opening of the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence.

I want to start by taking you back to 2015, when the terrible West African Ebola outbreak was just beginning to be brought under control.

As the world gathered in Geneva for the World Health Assembly, questions were being asked about how this could have happened.

There was a guest speaker at the Assembly that year. It was, of course, Chancellor Merkel.

This is what she said:

“The war will only have been won when there are no new infections. In fact, it will only really be won when we are properly equipped to face the next crisis – in other words, when we have learned from this crisis. One lesson that we all need to learn is that we should have reacted sooner. We thus have to ask: how we can do that?”

Lessons were learned from our experience in West Africa that have helped the response to subsequent outbreaks of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those outbreaks were brought under control without spreading across borders as they did in West Africa, even though the North Kivu outbreak occurred in a highly unstable and insecure environment, and very close to the border with Uganda.

But the lessons from West Africa were not sufficient to prepare the world for a global pandemic of a respiratory pathogen.

So the advice from the Chancellor remains very relevant.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the defining crisis of our time. It has taught the world many painful lessons.

One of the most clear is the need for new, powerful systems and tools for global surveillance, to collect, analyse and disseminate data on outbreaks with the potential to become epidemics and pandemics.

Viruses move fast, but data can move even faster.

With the right information, countries and communities can stay ahead of emerging risks, and save lives.

Urbanization, deforestation, climate change and intensified agricultural practices are all increasing the risks of zooneses spilling over into human populations.

At the same time, new technologies are giving us the ability to predict, prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks faster than ever before.

Harnessing the power of these new technologies to save lives is not just an opportunity, it’s an obligation.

As the German saying goes, “Wer rastet, der rostet”. Who rests, rusts.

That is what the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence is all about: leveraging innovations in data science, harnessing the power of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other cutting-edge technologies, and fostering greater sharing of data and information, between communities and countries.

No single institution or nation can do this alone. That’s why we have coined the term “collaborative intelligence” to sum up our collective mission.

This Hub will bring together scientists, innovators, policy makers, and civil society representatives from around the world to work across borders and disciplines, making collaborative intelligence a reality.

Of course, the ultimate goal is not just to develop new toys. It’s to save lives.

Our aim is to put the knowledge and insights that are developed here in Berlin to practical use on the ground all over the world.

As you know, there have been several reviews of the global response to the pandemic, with recommendations for countries and for WHO about what we can do to keep the world safer in future.

This hub is one response to those recommendations, filling a gap in the world’s defences and answering the question that Chancellor Merkel asked in 2015: how can we react faster, to avoid the needless suffering and death of the COVID-19 pandemic in future.

For WHO, this is part of our commitment to keeping the world safer, to being the organization the world needs, and to giving countries the information and tools they need to protect their people.

My brother Chikwe is the perfect person to lead the WHO Hub. He brings vision and experience, and will be an excellent addition to our WHO leadership team. Thank you so much for accepting the challenge.

And Berlin is the perfect place to host it, as a vibrant, dynamic, creative and modern city that is the ideal incubator for what we want to achieve, as my friend Minister Spahn said.

My thanks once again to Governing Mayor Müller and the people of Berlin for hosting the WHO Hub, and to the Federal Government for its generous financial support.

So many people have come together and worked so hard, so quickly to make this happen.

I would especially like to offer my profound thanks and appreciation to my friend and brother Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, who has devoted himself to bringing us all to this moment.

As some of you know, Bernhard is leaving WHO to take up a new role with the German government.

And as you all know, Bernhard is a WHO institution, with decades of experience in HIV, as a WHO Representative, and as my Chef de Cabinet for three-and-a-half years, steering the WHO ship through some difficult waters.

His last assignment was to build this new ship here in Berlin. So he knows how to steer a ship, and also how to build a ship.

We are reluctantly saying goodbye to Bernhard. WHO’s loss is Germany’s gain. So he’s not going anywhere still.

My brother, we will miss you – I will miss personally you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, and we wish you every success for the next chapter of your life and career.

As always I am proud of you, and continue to be proud of you.


Excellencies, colleagues and friends,

No one has done more to make thmd,waqje vision of the WHO Hub a reality than Chancellor Merkel.

Under her leadership, Germany has become a leading advocate for global health.

This is not a recent development, or a sudden realisation that health matters in the wake of a pandemic.

Health has been a central theme of Chancellor Merkel’s leadership throughout her tenure.

This began with the 2007 G8-Summit in Heiligendamm, which mobilized 60 billion US dollars for global health.

In 2015, she addressed the World Health Assembly, at a critical moment in global health.

In 2017, in my first week as Director-General, I had the honour of attending the G20 Summit in Hamburg, where under Chancellor Merkel’s leadership, Germany put a very strong emphasis on health and emergency preparedness.

As part of Germany’s G20 presidency, Chancellor Merkel also initiated the first ever meeting of G20 health ministers, which included a health emergency simulation exercise.

In 2019, together with the Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, and the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, she also initiated the Global Action Plan for Healthy Lives and Well-being for All, bringing together 13 multilateral health partners to develop a coherent approach for achieving the health-related targets in the Sustainable Development Goals.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the German government moved quickly to expand its financial support for WHO, becoming our biggest donor, and was one of the first supporters of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator.

In October last year, I was honoured to speak to Chancellor Merkel, which is when we first discussed the idea for a new centre that would serve as a global platform to enhance global capacity for pandemic and epidemic intelligence.

Which brings us to today. We have arrived at this moment in no small part because of one woman who says what she means, and means what she says.

The first time I spoke to her about the centre, she understood it because she has been advocating for the same. We didn’t need another cycle of discussion to explain or clarify.

I began by reminding you of Chancellor Merkel’s speech to the World Health Assembly in 2015.

She concluded that speech with an appeal, that, “Every single person is vitally needed to fight for the human right to health.”

As usual, she was right. The right to health is not a job for one organization or one leader. It is a job for every single one of us, every single day.

Your Excellency – and I dare to call you my friend,

You have more than played your part. Your leadership, integrity, humility – above all, humility – and dedication are an example to us all. I’m not saying this as DG only, I had the privilege of meeting you when I was Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, and I saw the consistency of your behaviour.

You have served your country with great distinction, but you have also served the people of the world with the same distinction. And I know that whatever life brings you in the months and years ahead, you will continue to serve others, and you will continue to work for the right to health.

Your legacy for global health will be so much more than your name on a plaque on a wall in Berlin. It will be etched in the lives of people all over the world for years to come, who will enjoy healthier and safer lives because of you.

You have my deep admiration, my deep respect, and my deep gratitude.

It is therefore with both pride and humility that I have the honour to present you with the WHO Global Leadership Award, in recognition of your outstanding contribution to the health of the world’s people.

My friends, please join me in showing our appreciation and respect for Her Excellency Dr Angela Merkel.

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