Discovering Invisible Truths – The rise of populist movements worldwide is challenging science and motivating scientists to join the debate and enter politics…

Featured Journal Content

Discovering Invisible Truths
Ilaria Capua, DVM, PhD, Professor, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, IFAS, University of Florida
Journal of Virology, October 2018; Volume 92, Issue 20

The rise of populist movements worldwide is challenging science and motivating scientists to join the debate and enter politics. Based on my experience, taking a public stand will not come without slanderous personal and institutional attacks as an attempt to shake scientific credibility.

Several years ago, I was a leading influenza scientist (1). I headed a fantastic team at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, Legnaro, Italy. There, I was very fortunate to lead at least two impactful projects. First, we developed a vaccination system for avian influenza in poultry that successfully controlled and eradicated subsequent epidemics of the disease in Italian farms (2). Second, we ignited an international debate on sharing avian influenza virus genetic sequences in an open-access environment to boost research and preparedness in a pre-pandemic phase (3, 4). The latter challenged an existing paradigm on data sharing across disciplines and organizations and was covered broadly in the popular press (5, 6).

However, scientific research and the efforts of scientists are not often fully recognized or appreciated by the general public, stakeholders, and policymakers. In the current environment, some believe that standing up and fighting for science has become part of the responsibility scientists hold and is a moral imperative. I had that opportunity and I grasped it. The Italian Prime Minister in office in 2013, Mario Monti, asked me to run for a seat in the Italian Parliament “to populate the Italian Parliament with members who understand the complexity of science policy and who can defend and promote science to make Italy more competitive” (M. Monti, personal communication, 6 January 2013). I accepted (7).

I was elected to the House of Representatives of the Italian Parliament and then selected as Vice Chair of the Science, Culture and Education Commission of the Chamber. I was motivated to make a difference. I was the speaker for the nation’s research budget (Fondo Ordinario per il finanziamento degli Enti e istituzioni di ricerca; FOE), and I achieved a unanimous vote on my proposed modification of part of the nation’s €1.7 billion research funding scheme. It was a complicated and challenging task and I was respected and appreciated for how I was managing the process.

One year after my election, an Italian weekly magazine, l’Espresso, published a cover article entitled “Virus traffickers: scientists have agreements with ‘Big Pharma’ to sell their vaccines and create epidemics” (8). The magazine cover was bright yellow and pictured a scientist in a biosafety level 4 (BSL4) lab suit with subheadlines screaming “Commercial agreements between scientists and pharmaceutical companies to manufacture and sell vaccines for their own profit,” alleging that bird flu strains were being “smuggled through the mail,” and referring to epidemics as “big business” (8) (the publisher declined a request to reproduce the image here). The article summarized a secret investigation led by the Rome Deputy District Attorney into a purported criminal organization that was selling influenza field viruses to pharmaceutical companies to enable them to produce vaccines for contemporary strains. The investigation also clearly alleged that there was evidence of deliberate spread of pathogenic viruses into the environment, with the criminal intention of establishing avian influenza epidemics in poultry and in humans in Italy between 1999 and 2008. The magazine cited me as the criminal mastermind behind an organization of approximately 40 people (8, 9).

I learned about the accusations with horror and dismay by reading the 6-page article, which also included distasteful pictures from layer poultry farms and infected sites during culling operations. The story was based on an absurd distortion of real events occurring between 1999 and 2007 that had been extensively reported in the scientific literature by myself, my collaborators, and external observers in review articles. To exemplify the level of inaccuracy of the investigation, investigators and prosecutors had confused outbreaks occurring in different years and caused by different viruses in different countries. As an example, they stated or believed that highly pathogenic (HP) A/H7N3/Pakistan/1995 (A/H7N3/PAK/95) was the causative agent of outbreaks caused by low-pathogenic viruses, such as A/H7N3/Italy/2003. These two viruses were addressed generically as H7N3 and then were additionally confused with an A/Italy/H7N1/HP/2000 virus. The “subtle” genetic, pathogenetic, and antigenic differences between H7 viruses were not taken into account in the narrative, and relevant scientific literature was completely ignored by the investigators (10). According to their reconstruction of events, I had taken personal advantage of the avian influenza vaccination campaign for my own profit, through royalties and contracts with pharmaceutical companies. A simple fact-checking exercise would have clearly shown that all intellectual property rights related to the DIVA (Differentiating Infected from Vaccinated Animals) test had been transferred to my home institution (9, 11). Another accusation was that I had actually promoted sharing of influenza virus sequence data globally so that I could create “killer” viruses in the lab. Further, conversations with colleagues, captured through phone tapping, in which I discussed my commitment to provide strains held in our repository to other scientists worldwide, were used against me as proof of misconduct. My words were repositioned in space and time and misrepresented to support a conspiracy theory between scientists and Big Pharma. I was accused of a dozen crimes, one of which was punishable with life imprisonment (9).

Justice is never fast enough, and certainly it is particularly slow in Italy. For over 2 years, I was shamed in the media and violently attacked in the Italian Parliament. I was asked publicly and repeatedly to resign and was the subject of multiple interrogations by populist parliamentarians. But the worst was the personal shame—neighbors’ and acquaintances’ slippery looks and abrupt shifts on the sidewalk left me in great distress. I was also shamed in the scientific community. The story was covered by both Science and Nature (12–16). The personal and professional alienation was paralyzing (9).

Notwithstanding my status in Parliament as a full-fledged lame duck, I continued to advocate for science and for greater attention to emerging threats, including antimicrobial resistance, Ebola preparedness and response, and Xylella fastidiosa infection in olive trees. I also was dedicated to maintaining a balance and institutional representation during the Commission sessions I chaired.

But a new challenge had begun. I had to provide evidence for my innocence, and to prove that members of my team had nothing to do with this. I spent endless days and nights assembling a 400-page dissertation to defend my professional work—digging out old papers, reviews, emails, calendars, presentations, and records of trips and meetings. I had to recover and document everything that happened in my professional life between 1999 and 2008, compiling evidence to nullify the accusations. Those were years of fear—fighting for science and my reputation against a system that is highly bureaucratized and scientifically incompetent.

A little over 2 years after the leak to the press, the judge for the preliminary investigation reviewed the case and dropped all charges against me and others because “there was no case to answer” (17). My 400-page defense had convinced the judge of our innocence. After being completely cleared, I resigned as a Member of Parliament (9).

The series of events that have triggered this rather devastating experience are irrelevant to the argument I would like to make. The detail is just an example; the context is instead very concerning. This happy-ending horror story is not only about me—it is about all of us and it holds multiple invisible

The winds of anti-science ideology are now strong on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The rise of populist movements and the dawn of the post-truth era are a threat to the values we cherish as scientists and to scientific competence. The populist movements generate oversimplified solutions to complex problems, and the post-truth era contributes to this framework by giving more value to sensationalism and opinions than to facts. The combination of these effects is destructive and should be of great concern to all, as it has the power of undermining basic scientific tenets, such as the efficacy of vaccination.

Scientists are entering or approaching politics in record numbers to stand up for and defend science and science-based investigation. In the current environment, this is both important and necessary. From my experience, it is a calling that comes with personal and professional sacrifice and risk, especially in a populist and post-truth setting. It is possible that increased exposure of scientists in the political arena might elicit stronger anti-science campaigns from populist movements. Anti-science movements often support Big Pharma conspiracy theories and include extremists of the anti-vaccination movement or of animal rights activist groups. As a community, we must be vigilant and prepared.

Microbiologists and molecular biologists have easily become among their targets. Some of us work with pathogens that elicit fright with even a mention. Terms such as “cloning,” “mutation,” and “virulence” are a small part of the peculiar verbiage we use to describe daily work and ordinary challenges. Snippets of these conversations can be easily misconstrued and interpreted incorrectly or deliberately taken out of context, especially by people who are motivated to do so from a political point of view.
We should be mindful that we are in an era in which competence and truth are devalued. Certain groups may go beyond demonstrating against some of our activities and may try to attack our credibility. This is an asset we cannot afford to lose.

We do science because we want the world to be a better place. But we cannot take for granted that science stands on its own. Some of us have taken on the challenge of fighting for science to defend its place in society, and more and more scientists are expected to join in. Perhaps as a community, we should reflect on how to proactively manage the challenges to come before they manifest themselves with the destructive force of slander.

Inappropriate reactions to slander could nullify important achievements of the past and weaken our strength in battles we are called to fight, such as tackling antimicrobial resistance or continuing our work on developing novel vaccines. As scientists, we have the moral responsibility to support the advancement of science rather than its devaluation and decline. Hard times seem to be approaching, and we cannot be caught unguarded, unprepared, or unable to respond to attacks fueled by anti-science movements.

This is a summary of the keynote lecture I delivered in Baltimore, Maryland, on 14 February 2018 at the Biothreats 2018 meeting (18). The audience present gave me the most overwhelming standing ovation. I thank those who were there and gave me that long applause—it meant very much to me.
My thanks also to Stefano Bertuzzi, Chief Executive Officer of the American Society for Microbiology, and Stacey Schultz-Cherry, President of the American Society for Virology, who strongly encouraged me to put pen to paper.
Writing this Gem was hard. I would like to thank my collaborators for kneading my words with questions, ideas, and thoughts that have made this Gem more precious.
References available at title link above

PDF available at:



Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC)
Polio this week as of 25 September 2018 [GPEI]
:: Preparations for World Polio Day are in full swing:  partners and stakeholders across the world are preparing for World Polio Day on 24 October, to raise awareness and resources for the global eradication effort.  Join Rotarians around the world in making this year’s World Polio Day a huge success.  Click here to view a video message by Rotary International President Barry Rassin, inviting everyone to join in World Polio Day activities.

Summary of new viruses this week:
Afghanistan – one case of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) and five WPV1-positive environmental samples;
Pakistan – seven WPV1-positive environmental samples;
Nigeria – three cases of circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2);
Horn of Africa (Somalia) – one cVDPV type 3-positive environmental sample
Editor’s Note:
WHO has posted a refreshed emergencies page which presents an updated listing of Grade 3,2,1 emergencies as below.

WHO Grade 3 Emergencies  [to 6 Oct 2018 ]
Democratic Republic of the Congo
:: 09: Situation report on the Ebola outbreak in North Kivu  4 October 2018
:: Disease Outbreak News (DONs)  Ebola virus disease – Democratic Republic of the Congo
4 October 2018
[See Milestones above for detail]

:: Yobe State requests WHO’s expertise over fresh cholera outbreak
Damaturu, 27 September 2018 – The Yobe state Government has called on the World Health Organization (WHO) to deploy its human resources and technical expertise to contain the ongoing outbreak of cholera in the state. The request was contained in a Press statement in Damaturu, the state capital by the Commissioner for Health, Dr Muhammad Bello Kawuwa…

Syrian Arab Republic
:: WHO delivers largest cross-border shipment of health supplies to northwest Syrian Arab Republic to date
5 October 2018 — The World Health Organization (WHO) supported close to 180 health facilities in northwest Syrian Arab Republic in September 2018 with essential medical supplies, totaling over 104 tonnes worth US$ 1.3 million. This is one of the biggest monthly shipments to date this year from its operational hub in Turkey, delivered to prepare for any possible escalation of conflict.
With these supplies, health facilities will be able to provide approximately 677 000 medical treatments for surgery and trauma, communicable and non-communicable diseases, and more. Medical supplies allow health facilities to remain functional and continue providing medical services to both trauma patients and those in need of primary health care…

Yemen – No new announcements identified
[See joint WHO-UNICEF press release above]

Bangladesh – Rohingya crisis – No new announcements identified
Somalia – No new announcements identified
South Sudan – No new announcements identified

WHO Grade 2 Emergencies  [to 6 Oct 2018 ]
:: Zimbabwe to vaccinate 1.4 million people against cholera in Harare

3 October 2018, Harare – The Government of Zimbabwe with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners is launching today an oral cholera vaccination (OCV) campaign to protect 1.4 million people at high risk of cholera in Harare…
[See OCV above for more detail]
:: Restoring mobility and hope in Mosul   5 October 2018
:: Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) – Saudi Arabia  3 October 2018
Cameroon  – No new announcements identified
Central African Republic  – No new announcements identified
Ethiopia – No new announcements identified
Hurricane Irma and Maria in the Caribbean – No new announcements identified
occupied Palestinian territory – No new announcements identified
Libya – No new announcements identified
Myanmar – No new announcements identified
Niger – No new announcements identified
Sao Tome and Principe Necrotizing Cellulitis (2017) – No new announcements identified
South Africa Listeriosis (2017) – No new announcements identified
Sudan – No new announcements identified
Ukraine – No new announcements identified

Outbreaks and Emergencies Bulletin, Week 37: 22 -28 September 2018
The WHO Health Emergencies Programme is currently monitoring 54 events in the AFRO region. This week’s edition covers key ongoing events, including:
:: Ebola virus disease outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
:: Cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe
:: Cholera outbreak in Cameroon
:: Plague outbreak in Madagascar
:: Monkeypox outbreak in Nigeria.
WHO Grade 1 Emergencies  [to 6 Oct 2018 ]
Angola (in Portuguese)
Lao People’s Democratic Republic
Papua New Guinea
Tropical Cyclone Gira


UN OCHA – L3 Emergencies
The UN and its humanitarian partners are currently responding to three ‘L3’ emergencies. This is the global humanitarian system’s classification for the response to the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises. 
:: Yemen Humanitarian Update Covering 18 – 27 September 2018 | Issue 28

Key Issues
– Food and fuel prices have skyrocketed following a sharp depreciation of the Yemeni Rial against the US dollar. Crippling fuel queues are reported in Sana’a.
– Food security has further deteriorated, which could add another 3.5 million people to the 8.4 million people who currently need emergency food assistance in Yemen.
– The main Al Hudaydah-Sana’a road remains inaccessible due to fighting; access to the city is only from the north, on the Al Hudaydah-Hajjah road.
– Over 2.3 million people have been displaced by conflict since 2015; and an additional 58,000 households were displaced between June and August 2018.
– Efforts are underway to expedite the release of humanitarian cargo currently held at Yemen’s main entry points awaiting import approval.

Syrian Arab Republic   No new announcements identified.


UN OCHA – Corporate Emergencies
When the USG/ERC declares a Corporate Emergency Response, all OCHA offices, branches and sections provide their full support to response activities both at HQ and in the field.
:: Ethiopia Humanitarian Bulletin Issue 64 | 17 – 30 September 2018
:: Humanitarian Bulletin Somalia, 5 September – 4 October 2018

The Sentinel

Human Rights Action :: Humanitarian Response :: Health :: Education :: Heritage Stewardship ::
Sustainable Development
Week ending 29 September 2018

This weekly digest is intended to aggregate and distill key content from a broad spectrum of practice domains and organization types including key agencies/IGOs, NGOs, governments, academic and research institutions, consortia and collaborations, foundations, and commercial organizations. We also monitor a spectrum of peer-reviewed journals and general media channels. The Sentinel’s geographic scope is global/regional but selected country-level content is included. We recognize that this spectrum/scope yields an indicative and not an exhaustive product. Comments and suggestions should be directed to:

David R. Curry
GE2P2 Global Foundation – Governance, Evidence, Ethics, Policy, Practice

PDF: The Sentinel_ period ending 29 Sep 2018

:: Week in Review  [See selected posts just below]
:: Key Agency/IGO/Governments Watch – Selected Updates from 30+ entities   [see PDF]
:: INGO/Consortia/Joint Initiatives Watch – Media Releases, Major Initiatives, Research:: Foundation/Major Donor Watch -Selected Updates  [see PDF]
:: Journal Watch – Key articles and abstracts from 100+ peer-reviewed journals  [see PDF]

Universal Human Rights Declaration [70th Anniversary] :: UN Secretary-General Remarks

Human Rights – 70th Anniversary of Universal Declaration

Universal Human Rights Declaration Must Continue Guiding Path to Development, Security, Secretary-General Says at Anniversary Event for Historic Document
26 September 2018
Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the high level event marking the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “A Prevention Tool to Achieve Peace and Sustainable Development”, in New York today:

It is indeed a pleasure to be here with all of you to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The rights enshrined in this foundational document belong to everyone, everywhere; they have no physical or [moral] frontier. Human rights are not the sole purview of north, south, east or west; or of developed or developing countries. They are independent of nationality, circumstances, gender or sexual orientation, race, religion or belief. The first article of the Universal Declaration is clear: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

Human rights are of value in themselves; they are not at the service of any other agenda. And no one ever loses their human rights, no matter what they do.

Over the past 70 years, the concept of human rights set out in the Universal Declaration has had a revolutionary impact. It has permeated policies and Constitutions, from the global level to national and regional frameworks.

In this way, the Universal Declaration has unleashed the power of women’s full participation; it has spurred the fight against racism, xenophobia and intolerance — including the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, as Nelson Mandela told the General Assembly 20 years ago.

The Universal Declaration has heralded movements by groups of all kinds, from indigenous people to people with disabilities, to claim their rights.

There is now broad recognition that, as Kofi Annan said: “The human family will not enjoy development without security, will not enjoy security without development and will not enjoy either without respect for human rights.”

Sadly, we still have a long way to go before respect for human rights is truly universal. Many people around the world still suffer from abuse of their rights. Gender inequality is one of the greatest human rights challenges we face. Refugees and migrants, people who do not conform to gender norms, and minorities of all kinds are frequently targeted for denial and abuse of their rights.

There is still resistance to supporting human rights, often linked to a false dichotomy between those rights and national sovereignty. But, human rights and sovereignty must go hand in hand.

Human rights strengthen States and societies and reinforce sovereignty. We have ample evidence that State-sponsored human rights abuses are a sign of weakness, not strength. They are often precursors to conflict and even to collapse.

I urge all Member States to heed these lessons and to strengthen support for United Nations action on human rights, including the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner [for Human Rights]. It is a pleasure to see Michelle, my dear friend, Michelle Bachelet, here today.

And I call on Governments that have not signed or ratified the two human rights Covenants, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to do so urgently.

Every social movement for human rights and solidarity in history has been led by young people. It was the fight for human rights and democracy in my country, under Salazar’s dictatorship, that triggered my own interest in political action.

There is a special place in my heart for young women and men who are speaking out for social justice. On Monday, I launched my new youth strategy, Youth 2030, to bring young people into the centre of our work.

I urge young people to make this space your home, to bring your energy and passion here, to challenge our ways of doing things and to take up the torch for our common humanity. You are the true custodians of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the guarantee that it will not succumb.

I entrust you with keeping it alight for another 70 years, to show us the path to a world of peace, dignity and opportunity for all.

Humanitarian Crisis in Free Fall – Joint NGO Statement on Yemen – 25th September 2018


.Humanitarian Crisis in Free Fall – Joint NGO Statement on Yemen
Tuesday 25th September 2018
Below is a joint NGO statement on Yemen for the 73rd UN General Assembly

After almost four years of conflict, and despite all efforts to halt displacement, hunger and disease, Yemen remains the worst humanitarian crisis on Earth. The suffering inflicted on Yemeni people is entirely man made and will continue to deteriorate rapidly on all fronts without actions to end the violence.

Increased fighting risks pushing the country into utter devastation: The ongoing escalation around the port city of Hodeidah jeopardises the safety of civilians and threatens the channels for critical fuel, food and medical supplies to the rest of the country. It is crucial that this remains open. The lives of millions of Yemeni women, men and children hang on this lifeline.

Civilians continue to bear the brunt: Civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as markets, hospitals, school buses and mills continue to be hit by all parties with impunity, as reported by the UN Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen. Attacks on schools and hospitals continue with over 1,800 schools directly impacted by the conflict, including more than 1,500 that have been damaged or destroyed and 21 used by armed groups.

A lost generation of Yemeni children: Two million children and young people remain out of school, depriving them of an education and exposing them to higher levels of violence and exploitation. Millions of displaced children cannot access education, and ongoing attacks on schools or their use by armed groups mean children’s safety at school cannot be guaranteed.

Populations on the brink of starvation: 17.8 million people, over 60 percent of the population, are food insecure and over 8.4 million of them stand on the brink of starvation; 4.2 million of them children and another million children at risk as food and fuel prices soar across the country. Malnutrition directly threatens lives but also weakens the immune system, leading to people dying from preventable diseases, including cholera and pneumonia. Breast-feeding mothers, children and the elderly remain particularly vulnerable. Half of all Yemeni children are stunted where these children are unable to access the nutrients their bodies need to grow, reducing their ability to learn and thrive.

A struggling economy continues to falter: A crippled economy continues to weaken, with the recent sharp devaluation of the Yemeni Riyal (YER) further constraining peoples’ ability to purchase food and medicine, with many having to make agonising choices between the two and many others left with too little to access either.

Protracted conflict and eroding safety nets has left millions of Yemeni without access to livelihoods or the ability to deal with economic shocks. An estimated 1.2 million public servants, especially in northern governorates, have not been paid their usual salaries in more than two years and a war economy has left millions with very few earning opportunities.

Barriers to access continue: Restrictions to land, sea and air trade routes have led to severely reduced supplies of vital commodities. In addition to uncertainty about the accessibility of Yemen’s ports, particularly Hodeidah, Sana’a’s airport has been closed to commercial flights since August 2016; further restricting the mobility of the Yemeni population. While the new ‘medical airbridge’ agreement is welcome, this is a small concession that continues to leave the majority of Yemeni people without freedom to seek medical treatment overseas.

In addition, 1.4 million people remain in hard-to-reach areas, unable to access vital assistance and support, an increase of 200,000 since February 2018. Escalation in fighting has exacerbated these challenges, with hundreds of thousands displaced in recent months, including close to half a million from Hodeidah since June 2018.

The international community must step up to pressure all parties to the conflict to:
:: Comply with their obligations under international law, and take immediate measures to prevent and end grave violations against children;
:: Ensure humanitarian and commercial access of essential goods and services; and
:: Engage all parties to the conflict to find a peaceful, sustainable and implementable political solution that involves women, youth, minority groups and civil society.

Only a political solution can bring the war to an end and reinstate peace in Yemen. All parties must immediately cease hostilities, agree to a comprehensive ceasefire, and cooperate in ‘good faith’ with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffith’s peace process.

Signed by:
Action Against Hunger (ACF)
Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA)
Global Communities
Islamic Relief Worldwide
Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Relief International
Save the Children
War Child

The State of Palestine institutes proceedings against the United States of America [Embassy Move to Jerusalem]]

Governance – Siting of Diplomatic Missions

The State of Palestine institutes proceedings against the United States of America
THE HAGUE, 28 September 2018. The State of Palestine today instituted proceedings against the United States of America before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, with respect to a dispute concerning alleged violations of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 18 April 1961 (hereinafter the “Vienna Convention”).

It is recalled in the Application that, on 6 December 2017, the President of the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced the relocation of the American Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The American Embassy in Jerusalem was then inaugurated on 14 May 2018.

Palestine contends that it flows from the Vienna Convention that the diplomatic mission of a sending State must be established on the territory of the receiving State. According to Palestine, in view of the special status of Jerusalem, “[t]he relocation of the United States Embassy in Israel to . . . Jerusalem constitutes a breach of the Vienna Convention”.

As basis for the Court’s jurisdiction, the Applicant invokes Article 1 of the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes. It notes that Palestine acceded to the Vienna Convention on 2 April 2014 and to the Optional Protocol on 22 March 2018, whereas the United States of America is a party to both these instruments since 13 November 1972….

United Nations, World Bank, and Humanitarian Organizations Launch Innovative Partnership to End Famine

Health – Famine Prevention/Mitigation

United Nations, World Bank, and Humanitarian Organizations Launch Innovative Partnership to End Famine
Global Technology Firms to Provide Expertise on Frontier Technology to Better Predict Famines

WASHINGTON, September 23, 2018—The United Nations, World Bank, International Committee of the Red Cross, Microsoft Corp., Google and Amazon Web Services today announced an unprecedented global partnership to prevent future famines.

The international organizations, with support from leading global technology firms, are launching the Famine Action Mechanism (FAM)—the first global mechanism dedicated to preventing future famines. In the past, responses to these devastating events has often come too late, once many lives have already been lost, incurring high assistance costs. The FAM seeks to change this by moving towards famine prevention, preparedness and early action—interventions that can save more lives and reduce humanitarian costs by as much as 30%. The initiative will use the predictive power of data to trigger funding through appropriate financing instruments, working closely with existing systems.

In 2017, more than 20 million people across north-eastern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen faced famine or famine-like conditions, the result of a complex intersection of conflict, poverty, climate change and food prices. These conditions continue in many parts of the world today, derailing hard-won development gains in chronically poor countries. Today, 124 million people live in crisis levels of food insecurity, requiring urgent humanitarian assistance for their survival. Over half of them live in areas affected by conflict.

“The Famine Action Mechanism, FAM, is an important new tool that will help to predict and therefore prevent food insecurity and famine before they have a chance to take hold. Crisis prevention saves lives. With the Famine Action Mechanism, we are renewing our pledge to Zero Tolerance for famine and acute food insecurity,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

“The fact that millions of people—many of them children—still suffer from severe malnutrition and famine in the 21st century is a global tragedy,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said. “We are forming an unprecedented global coalition to say, ‘no more.’ The Famine Action Mechanism is a preventative approach that knits together innovative technology, early financing, and strong partnerships on the ground in an effort to prevent famine. It will help us deploy our combined resources to protect the poorest and most vulnerable, and it will allow us to refocus our collective attention on the millions of chronically food-insecure people who suffer each year.”

“The ICRC, working on frontlines around the world, sees the deep suffering inflicted by conflict and violence. Famine is often a devastating symptom of protracted war. We are hopeful that new models of collaboration such as this will bring new solutions and reduce food insecurity at scale,” said ICRC President Peter Maurer.

The FAM will promote investments that tackle the root causes of famine at the first warning signs. It will help build vulnerable people’s livelihoods, safety nets and coping mechanisms. In the last decade, the Bank has invested up to $3 billion annually in food security initiatives and will be looking for additional ways to increase these investments in future projects and programs.

The FAM will use state-of-the-art technology to provide more powerful early warning to identify when food crises threaten to turn into famines. These alerts will trigger pre-arranged funding and action plans by donors, humanitarian agencies and governments to generate earlier and more efficient interventions.

“If we can better predict when and where future famines will occur, we can save lives by responding earlier and more effectively,” said Brad Smith, President of Microsoft. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning hold huge promise for forecasting and detecting early signs of food shortages, like crop failures, droughts, natural disasters, and conflicts. Microsoft is proud to join Amazon and Google in developing solutions to address this humanitarian need.”

Google, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services and other technology firms are providing the world’s top expertise to develop a suite of analytical models called “Artemis” that uses advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning to estimate and forecast worsening food security crises in real-time. These forecasts will help guide and promote decision makers to respond earlier.

“Artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies can be a powerful force for good, and we’ve already seen that they have the potential to help farmers identify disease in cassava plants, keep cows healthier and more productive, and integrate overall relief efforts. Google is proud to partner with the World Bank on the Famine Action Mechanism to help prevent future famine in communities around the world,” said Kent Walker, Google’s Senior Vice President of Global Affairs and Chief Legal Officer.

“We are proud to play a role in the FAM initiative, and to work collaboratively to solve one of the world’s most pressing issues,” said Teresa Carlson, Vice President of Worldwide Public Sector, Amazon Web Services, Inc. “Public-private collaborations like this one allow us to collectively bring cutting-edge technology to leading humanitarian organizations, giving them innovative tools to predict and prevent famine, and to ultimately save lives.”

The FAM builds on the World Bank’s experience and commitment to better forecast risks and prevent crises of all types before they occur. In July, the World Bank Group Board endorsed the Global Crisis Risk Platform, a new platform for identifying risks before they become full blown crises. The Platform incorporates prevention and preparedness into client country development strategies and is being used to get ahead of global crises such as famine, Ebola and other natural and man-made disasters.

The FAM also builds on the United Nations efforts to prioritize prevention, and its efforts to address risks more systematically. It also aligns with the recently adopted Security Council Resolution 2417 on the links between conflict-induced food insecurity and the threat of famine.

The FAM will initially be rolled out in a small group of vulnerable countries building up to ultimately provide global coverage. On October 13, leaders dedicated to this initiative will gather as part of the IMF-World Bank Annual Meetings to discuss further implementation of the FAM.