The potential consequences of a virulent epidemic in an era of rapid global travel make it essential to understand what factors motivate governments to report disease outbreaks or attempt to conceal them. By reporting an outbreak, a country may obtain international medical assistance, but trading partners may then impose costly trade and travel sanctions. The greater the return (or the penalty) for reporting an outbreak, the greater the return (or the cost) for detecting the outbreak in the first place. These incentives and disincentives thus affect the country’s decision on how much to allocate to surveillance.
To see how incentives are influenced by the speed of transmission of the disease, the quality of surveillance data, and the availability of vaccines, CDDEP researchers built a game-theory model to capture the basic dynamics. The findings shed light on why countries have failed to cooperate fully on surveillance and reporting and also point the way toward better cooperation. More valuable medical assistance and perhaps financial transfers to offset the cost of reporting sanctions would be useful; limits on sanctions, especially sanctions based on fears of undetected outbreaks, are not.
Researchers then used a bioeconomic model to study the effect of incentives on surveillance and reporting. The findings confirm that the World Health Organization should take into account a country’s incentives to look for and report disease outbreaks, notwithstanding its legal obligations. As with other global public goods, one country’s failure to act promptly could have serious consequences for the whole world.