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Aotearoa New Zealand needs a Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to prepare the country for future pandemics which have the potential to be far worse than Covid-19 according to global health and infectious disease experts.

In the latest Briefing from the Public Health Communication Centre—Why we need an Aotearoa Centre for Disease Control—Professor Michael Baker, Professor John Crump, and co-authors look at the advantages of having a CDC to build the science capacity needed for responding to future pandemics and better managing existing infectious disease threats.

New Zealand’s lack of a specialised national infectious disease centre makes us an outlier internationally according to Professor Baker.

“Many countries already have established CDC-type organisations that take responsibility for integrated surveillance, coordinated laboratory testing, outbreak response, workforce training, and strategic capacity building. Australia is in the process of establishing a federal CDC.”

“NZ is unusual in not having sustained institutional mechanisms for ensuring this essential infrastructure. For example, we are notably absent from the list of countries with field epidemiology training programmes. These programmes ensure a capable workforce of epidemiologists ready to spring into action to track and limit the spread of emerging infectious diseases.”

Professor Baker notes that New Zealand already has many of the resources it needs to form such a Centre, with an existing Crown Research Institute (ESR), and groups of expert infectious disease researchers and practitioners across the country.

“As we learnt during the pandemic, there is a critical need to coordinate and integrate multiple activities, including surveillance, testing, contact tracing, and expert analysis. These capabilities and the associated specialist workforce take years of concentrated effort to build. International experience shows that these activities need consistent, long-term capacity building and operation that is at least partially protected from Government sector reorganisations.

The authors note that NZ already has multiple initiatives that could support the model they are proposing. MBIE is leading Te Ara Paerangi – Future Pathways – which is a multi-year programme to build a future-focused research, science, and innovation system.  And in the 2023 budget Government proposed establishing a Pandemic Response Centre (as part of the proposed Wellington Science City) to build better linkages between Crown Research Institutes and Universities

Professor Crump (who trained in New Zealand and at the US CDC and now works at the University of Otago and internationally) emphasised the critical need for New Zealand to have a regional and global public health perspective and active global health role. 

“There are multiple reasons for New Zealand to take a global perspective when responding to current and emerging infectious disease threats. Pandemics by definition cross borders, so we need to combat them at a global level,” said Professor Crump.

“As a high-income country, New Zealand has obligations through, for example, official development assistance to collaborate to support capacity building in low- and middle-income countries.  A national CDC would be an important way to contribute to effective global efforts. It could also be a key focal point for sharing expertise with corresponding organisations internationally.”

The Covid-19 pandemic showed NZ can deliver a highly effective response to a global health emergency, but it was far from perfect when compared to better prepared countries such as Taiwan. “Our delivery was more costly and disruptive than it needed to be and had expensive failures that more operational research might have helped to prevent. It also did not deliver equitable outcomes for Māori and Pacific Peoples,” says Professor Baker.

“We can do better with an Aotearoa CDC bringing our expertise together.”


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