Understanding the Norms and Practices of Pathogen-Sharing to Improve Global Health Security

How can we improve international arrangements for pathogen- and benefit-sharing to ensure health security for all?

Project Summary

Infectious diseases pose a threat to national security, but also have an economic value through the pathogen sharing practices, which aim to prevent, or at least strenghten capacities of reaction in case of crises. The Ebola crisis proved how critical pathogen sharing is to controlling outbreaks and thus, how beneficial sharing can be. However, existing governing frameworks for this process have several shortcomings, are under strain, and are very complicated. Furthermore, there are emergent technologies that take away the incentives to share.

The research questions guiding the analysis are as follows:

  • How can pathogen- and benefit-sharing practices be measured, described and meaningfully assessed?
  • What are the most important determinants of pathogen-sharing and non-sharing?  
  • What specific global governance tools and instruments are likely to be most effective?

The methodology envisaged to answer them includes both quantitative and qualitative analysis. Metrics will be developed for pathogen-sharing and they will be submitted to specialized focus groups for discussions and analysis. Two case studies of Ebola and Zika will be analyzed in depth. Hypotheses for policy will be developed and tested. 

Academic Output

Executive Summary

The fair, reliable and rapid international sharing of pathogens and related benefits—which we refer to here as pathogen- and benefit- sharing (PBS)—is critical for protecting global public health, particularly in the event of outbreaks of infectious disease. This research project was motivated by the need to increase understanding of current practices in PBS and identify workable solutions for their improvement. We conducted 86 interviews with experts involved in PBS internationally (n=53), during Liberia’s 2014–16 Ebola epidemic (n-20) and during Brazil’s 2015–16 Zika epidemic (n=13). We triangulated our interview data with quantitative data on influenza virus shipments from the Influenza Virus Traceability Mechanism (IVTM) and 26 Material Transfer Agreements (MTAs). Respondents expressed significant concern around the incoherent global governance of PBS, particularly in light of the coming into force of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-Sharing in 2014. Pathogen-sharing relied heavily on interpersonal relationships of trust and was not reliable during emergencies, although such sharing occurred regularly outside of outbreaks. Benefit-sharing practices varied widely, with a broad range of understandings regarding what “benefits” could or should mean concretely. Power disparities between stakeholders shaped which pathogens and benefits were shared, with whom and on what terms and conditions, with the security and economic value of both pathogens and benefits escalating rapidly during emergency outbreaks. Our research found no single solution supported by a critical mass of stakeholders, but enough consensus on key principles for a small representative group of stakeholders to start the process of clarifying international normative frameworks for PBS governance. Further case studies are needed on PBS in specific outbreaks, the kinds of benefit sharing arrangements that have been implemented, as well as studies on PBS practices in plant and animal health.

Working Paper

“Everybody knows this needs to be done but nobody really wants to do it: governing pathogen – and benefit sharing (PBS)”

Access to pathogens and the sharing of benefits arising from their use is a key concern for global health. Across recent outbreaks, including Ebola, Zika, MERS-CoV, and the newly emergent SARS-CoV-2, questions around the sharing of samples and related genomic sequencing data (GSD) and their associated benefits have been central considerations. Given a growing recognition of the need to ensure timely and fair pathogen- and benefit-sharing (PBS)1 for pathogens of pandemic potential among humans, a 4-hour online workshop, Governing Pathogen- and Benefit-Sharing: From pandemic influenza to other pathogens of pandemic potential, was held on July 2, 2020. In advance of the meeting, the organizers2 prepared a draft research report on drivers and challenges for PBS and the breadth and scope of policy options proposed for PBS governance.



Though ensuring the fair, reliable, and rapid international sharing of pathogen samples and related benefits is necessary to control infectious disease outbreaks, it has proven difficult. We gathered data from two country cases, influenza sample movements, interviews, and contracts to understand current practices and perceptions. We found that countries shared pathogens for instrumental, political, security, economic and scientific reasons; and that benefits were sought for the global public interest, academic recognition, strengthening national capacities, and economic returns. During outbreaks, barriers arose due to disparities in technology and capacity, biosecurity concerns, commercial interests, and the absence of clear rules. We found consensus on the urgency of improving the global governance of PBS, but not on how to do so. We discuss the options proposed for PBS governance and the need for more focused political leadership to achieve global health security, with equity.

Research Team

Suerie Moon
The Graduate Institute

Gian Luca Burci
The Graduate Institute

Anthony Rizk
Principal Member
The Graduate Institute

Sylvie Briand
Associated Member

Anne Huvos
Associated Member

Stéphanie Dagron
Associated Member
University of Geneva

Rebecca Katz
Associated Member
Georgetown University

Mosoka Fallah
Associated Member
National Public Health Institute of Liberia

Jorge Bermudez
Associated Member
National School of Public Health at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz), Brazil





Policy domains



Brazil, Liberia

Host Institution