Due to COVID-19 the German Epidemic Preparedness Team is working to capacity – and beyond
The German Epidemic Preparedness Team (SEEG) advises the BMZ as well as German-supported health projects in partner countries on how to be prepared for and manage infectious disease outbreaks. In times of COVID-19, the demand for SEEG’s support is high – and providing it is extra challenging. Despite this, the team is determined to deliver.
For the past few weeks, the German Epidemic Preparedness Team’s phone lines have been running hot and its mailboxes overflowing. According to Larissa Duddeck, the acting team leader, ‘the novel corona virus and the related Corona Virus Disease, or COVID-19, pandemic have led to an enormous increase in our workload from early 2020 onwards.’ Together with her team, Franziska Badenschier, Dr Kirstin Meier, Dr Michael Nagel, Leila Popal and Dr Christian Popescu, Duddeck prepares daily updates and communication points for the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and supports colleagues in health projects worldwide who ask for technical advice, for example on the procurement of test kits.
The German Epidemic Preparedness Team
The German Epidemic Preparedness Team (in German: Schnell Einsetzbare Expertengruppe Gesundheit, SEEG) was initiated by the BMZ in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) after the West African Ebola epidemic. SEEG is a cooperation between Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM) and Robert Koch Institute (RKI). It supports partner countries in preparing for and responding to outbreaks of infectious diseases with epidemic and pandemic potential. So far, SEEG has supported 15 German Development Cooperation partner countries through more than 20 missions.
Just in time: Training Namibian lab technicians in COVID-19 diagnostics
In addition to these advisory activities, the team’s core work – missions to partner countries to support their epidemic preparedness and outbreak response capacities – has continued. In the first week of March 2020, in response to a request from the Namibian government, Dr Kirstin Meier and Dr Michael Nagel travelled to Namibia to help establish laboratory diagnostics for COVID-19 at the national reference laboratory in Windhoek.
While the laboratory in Windhoek possesses the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) machines needed to perform the tests, it lacked the new Corona Virus test kits and its staff had to be trained in their use. ‘We brought some supplies with us and trained six lab technicians from the Namibian Institute for Public Health, the University of Namibia and the Central Veterinary Laboratory’ says Meier. ‘And our mission was just in time: One week after the training, Namibia confirmed its first two COVID-19 cases.’
Supporting countries where the epidemic is only just beginning
Now, in late March 2020, the team is planning similar training missions in COVID-19 laboratory diagnostics to further partner countries. However, in the current situation, organising this poses considerable challenges. ‘Usually, we travel to countries that want to prepare for possible future outbreaks or to places where an outbreak is in its early days.’ explains Nagel. ‘But as it stands now, we would travel from the pandemic’s epicenter to areas which appear to be less-affected areas so far – and this is very difficult to organize.’ The barriers the team has to overcome to continue its missions are indeed massive: Many countries have closed their borders, there are hardly any flights, and Germany has stopped or restricted the export of some medical goods and personal protective equipment. Duddeck and her team, however, are determined to continue to deliver – and for good reasons: SEEG has more requests for support from partner countries than ever before.
All over the world, people now realise how important it is to be prepared
‘The COVID-19 pandemic is severe and worrying, there is no doubt’ says Duddeck. ‘Yet, as painful as this is, finally governments and people all over the world realise how important epidemic preparedness, pandemic prevention and health systems strengthening really are. We must and we will make use of this momentum.’