By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - - The World Bank on Saturday said it was launching a $500 million (345 million pounds), fast-disbursing insurance fund to combat deadly pandemics in poor countries, creating the world's first insurance market for pandemic risk.
Japan has committed the first $50 million towards the facility, which will combine funding from reinsurance markets with the proceeds of a new type of World Bank-issued high-yield pandemic “catastrophe” bond, the bank said.
In the event of a pandemic outbreak, the facility will release funds quickly to affected poor countries and qualified international first-responder agencies. The genesis of the new facility was the slow international response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, when it took months to muster meaningful funds for affected countries as death tolls mounted.
"The recent Ebola crisis in West Africa was a tragedy that we were simply not prepared for. It was a wake-up call to the world,” World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told a media conference call.
“We can’t change the speed of a hurricane or the magnitude of an earthquake, but we can change the trajectory of an outbreak. With enough money sent to the right place at the right time, we can save lives and protect economies,” Kim added.
The so-called Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility will initially provide up to $500 million that can be disbursed quickly to fight a pandemic, with funds released once parametric triggers are met, based on the size, severity and spread of an outbreak.
The facility was developed in conjunction with the World Health Organization and reinsurers Swiss Re and Munich Re, which are acting as insurance providers. It will include catastrophe, or cat bonds, in which purchasers would lose principal if fund flows are triggered by a pandemic outbreak, the World Bank said. But the insurance mechanism is limited to certain classes of infectious diseases most likely to cause major outbreaks, including several types of influenza, respiratory diseases such as SARS and MERS, and other deadly viruses including Ebola and Marburg.
Kim said the types of qualifying diseases had to be limited in order to secure the insurance policy, for which the World Bank will pay premiums.
The mosquito-borne Zika virus now spreading in Latin America is not included in the insurance scheme, but Kim said funds for Zika and other diseases that could lead to pandemics would be made available through a separate cash window, which is likely to be in the $100 million range.
Kim, who announced the facility at a Group of Seven finance ministers and central bank governors' meeting in Sendai, Japan, said he expected more contributions from G7 and other donors.
He said he hoped the new facility would spur development of a market for pandemic risk, similar to that for natural catastrophe risk since the 1990s.
The bank estimated that had the facility existed in mid-2014, an initial $100 million could have been mobilized as early as July of that year to severely limit the spread and severity of the Ebola epidemic.
Instead, it took three months for that scale of money to begin flowing, a period in which the number of Ebola cases increased ten-fold.
The disease eventually killed more than 11,300 people and has cost at least $10 billion – more than $7 billion in international aid and some $2.8 billion in gross domestic product losses in Guinea, Libera and Sierra Leone.
(Reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Robert Birsel)