Geneva Health Forum 2022: from pandemic response to planetary health

A debate during the 2021 Geneva Health Forum, held online. (Credit: Geneva Health Forum)

The Covid-19 pandemic has shed light on how human health and ‘planetary health’ are inextricably linked - through deforestation, urbanisation and climate change, all of which increase future disease risks. This year’s Geneva Health Forum explores these and other critical global health challenges, as well as emerging solutions, just ahead of the World Health Assembly.

In one of the first major in-person global health gatherings since the pandemic began, over a thousand researchers, policymakers and activists are expected to descend on Switzerland’s global health hub 3-5 May for the 2022 edition of the Geneva Health Forum

The GHF has morphed from a modest Geneva-based event focused mostly on the sharing of clinical experiences, to one of the world’s leading global public health events, its sponsors say. 

It straddles the worlds of innovation, clinical advances, and increasingly, health diplomacy, observes GHF Executive Director Eric Comte, a staff member at the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva.

Straddling Geneva’s global health hub and regional realities  

“With the Covid crisis and with the environmental crisis, we are in front of really big, big challenges in terms of global health,” Compte says.

“We cannot continue, as usual, thinking that the health system will solve the problems.  We need a much more multilateral approach.”

But the conference also links the world of field researchers with movers and shakers in Geneva's global health hub, home to the World Health Organization and other international organisations, with the voices of civil society, as well as the private sector. 

“We need to break the silos between the health organisations but also with other domains, and we think that Geneva can play a role to facilitate actions addressing all of these challenges,” Comte says.  

Two dozen partners 

Now in its ninth edition as a biennial event, this year’s conference has a dual theme: Covid-19 Pandemic and Environmental Emergency; and Reinventing Global Health in Times of Global Changes.

The conference involves some two dozen partner organisations including: all of Geneva’s  major multilateral health organisations such as WHO, UNAIDS, GAVI the Vaccine Alliance, and the Global Fund; leading Swiss university and hospital research centres; and major non-profit organisations, such as Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative (DNDi) and PATH

Since this year’s theme includes “planetary health”, and related to that the so-called “one health’” relationship between the human and animal world, other UN agencies, including the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), the United Nations Environment Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, are also playing a role.

“Working with the environmental organisations, also including the IUCN and WWF, and bringing them together with the health organisations is one way that we can make the bridge,” says Comte.

Humanitarian relief and sustainable finance   

Humanitarian relief agencies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières also play an important role in the Geneva landscape, and are also partners in the event.  And, so another stream of GHF sessions will address issues involving migrants, refugees and related humanitarian challenges –  from impact of climate change on conflict and migration to the war in Ukraine.

“We will also have a keynote address the Ukraine war, its displacement of populations, migration, and the related refugee crisis – we will open the Forum on this point,” says Professor Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health of the University of Geneva (UNIGE), co-organiser of the conference with Geneva University Hospitals (HUG).   

But the current crisis also needs to be seen in proportion with other longstanding humanitarian issues that the world faces.  “Given that the war is an enormous public health problem, it’s sure it will get our attention,” he adds, while at the same time bemoaning the fact that, “today no one is speaking about Afghanistan, about Ethiopia.” 

Finally, another major thread running through the conference is economics and sustainable finance – something that also comes naturally to Geneva, a global financial services centre.

Collaborators span the range from the World Economic Forum and major pharmaceutical actors - many of which also are headquartered in Switzerland. Financial actors, working together under the Sustainable Finance Geneva consortium, also are contributing.  

“We [in Geneva] are a humanitarian hub, environmental hub, a health hub, but we think it’s also important to make the link to the financial world, to include more of the economic sector,’’ Comte says. 

Global Health Lab showcases affordable innovations  

One more major element of the Forum is the Global Health Lab exhibit, a large space at the International Conference Centre Geneva venue (CICG), which will be showcasing more than 100 tech innovations from around the world. 

These include dozens of new breakthroughs in telemedicine diagnostics and treatment, such as a Vital signs monitor from Bangladesh, a Brazilian telecardiology tool, a Ghanaian “virtual mental health space” as well as affordable medical devices. These include  an Indian “skin spray gun” as well as a solution to tackle antimicrobial resistance in waste-water. 

The exhibits will interface with special sessions on e-health, which is being used more and more in the health sector, with exploration of what Comte describes as a comprehensive “digital pathway for a patient - from appointment to test results and treatment”. 

“The Forum has been extremely successful in taking very concrete research from the field and sharing it with practitioners… to see how to scale up the approaches,” Flahault observes, and the exhibit is a big part of that effort. 

But alongside that, he sees an increasing emphasis on “health diplomacy” linking the findings at the research level with policy-making. “In the ‘one health’ arena in particular, there are a lot of discussions that are no longer just about clinical research, but are policy questions.”

Public avant-premiere of film, Making Pandemics 

While understanding the “one health” link between the animal world and human disease risks is sometimes hard to grasp - a major new film being premiered at the conference draws out the linkages in visual images and stories that are easy to understand. 

Making Pandemics (La Fabrique des Pandémies), is a film by the French documentary producer and director, Marie Monique Robin, author of an earlier documentary, The World According to Monsanto, on the infamous pesticide Roundup.

This latest film, narrated by Juliette Binoche, takes the viewer to Congo, Thailand and the site of industrial livestock production, to witness the ecosystem destruction taking place today – and to understand how that increases animal-human contacts and subsequent disease risks.  

On 4 May, the film will be aired for free at the Conference’s CICG venue before conference participants and the public alike, in an “avant-premiere” ahead of the film’s world premiere on 22 May, the International Day of Biodiversity, in 30 countries around the world.

“As we say, the Geneva Health Forum is a forum for people who are already involved. But this film gives us the opportunity to enlighten the public that we want to motivate,” says Comte. 

A welcome return to an in-person event 

In the spring of 2020, the in-person GHF conference had to be canceled at the last minute due to the pandemic and proceedings shifted to an all virtual forum.

Both Comte and Flahault are delighted that this year’s event is a hybrid that should offer the best of both worlds. 

In fast, most sessions will be exclusively face to face in order to restore more direct participation  – although the major plenary stream will also be online.   

“We are looking forward to returning to an in-person event,” Comte says. “We learned a lot from the digital Geneva Health Forum that we did the last time. It can offer us an opportunity to link to people who will never be able to come to Geneva.”

“At the same time, we see that one of the real advantages of the GHF is to facilitate networking between people and collaborations. For this, you have to have in-person meetings and deeper discussions.” 

Fostering year-round collaborations 

As a conference based in Geneva, the world’s second UN headquarters, the Forum offers a special draw to UN Missions officials, and particularly their health attachés, adds Flahault. 

“A health attaché can be a very lonely post,” he says. “They may be based in smaller missions, they have a lot of duties, and health issues are complex. So they appreciate being able to come to the Forum, as a kind of preliminary to the World Health Assembly, and gain insights that will be useful when the WHA comes along three weeks later.

The Forum’s Geneva position also enjoys a natural audience from the dozens of global health organisations, large and small, already operating in the city, which bring together a very diverse array of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers. 

“There are not so many forums where you gather people from academic institutions, NGOs, international organisations, and the private sector altogether,” he observes.  

While about half of the GHF participants are drawn locally, or from nearby European countries - the other half hail from dozens of nations around the world. For both local diplomats, as well as more far-flung participants, Switzerland’s traditional position as a “neutral” intermediary - unaffiliated with the world’s big power blocs, also remains an enduring draw to the event, which is also supported financially by the Swiss Confederation. 

Flahault adds: “It’s important to them to have the Swiss neutral voice where they can find a venue for debate without vested interests attached.”

Drawing from its diverse base of participants, the GHF is also now incubating a series of ongoing collaborations, which extend well beyond the biennial conference dates.  

Those included a series of webinars last year, and this year, a series of eight workshops in which researchers and clinicians are exploring key themes like a new suite of recommended Digital Health interventions, which WHO could consider; improving pediatric surgery as well as sustainable pharmaceutical distribution in Africa; and a training programme for One Health/ Planetary Health. 

“So we are no longer only a health conference,” declares Comte. “We are creating permanent activities with working groups that will foster ongoing opportunities for collaboration. This is very important for us, because it’s really a place where people can work together.” 

See the full *GHF 2022 programme. Register here: Rates are tiered and range from CHF 300- 100 for the in-person event to CHF 200-70 for digital-only participation to the entire 3 days’ conference. Daily rates are also available.*

This article was first published on Health Policy Watch