Every year, the world’s top business and political leaders converge on the ski village of Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum meeting. Read on for some of the key themes discussed at this year’s conference, which stand to shape the healthcare and life sciences industry in the coming year.


Health & The Climate Crisis

There was broader recognition than ever at this year’s Davos that the global climate crisis – if left untackled – will have severe health and economic consequences. A recent WEF report suggests that climate change could lead to USD 12.5 trillion in economic losses and 14.5 million deaths by 2050, as reported by ESG Clarity’s Holly Downes.

Bill Gates of Microsoft fame suggested to Bloomberg that increased global health spending would be an effective way to address climate impact. Gates affirmed that this is particularly true in the context of vaccine development for climate-sensitive diseases like malaria, cholera, and yellow fever.

UK secretary of state for foreign, commonwealth and development affairs (and former prime minister) David Cameron agreed, telling delegates that investment in these products “is one of the easiest investment decisions [that business leaders] could ever make.”


AI: Vaccine Development Opportunities & Call for Guardrails

Vaccines – which helped drag the world out of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis – were also discussed at Davos in the context of artificial intelligence. The rise of powerful generative AI tools like ChatGPT have meant that AI and its myriad possibilities are now firmly in the consciousness of public and business elite alike.

There are hopes that vaccine development timelines – already supercharged in response to the COVID crisis – can be sped up even further by using AI. “When we have the next pandemic, we don’t want to have to wait a year before we get the vaccine,” said UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt. “If AI can shrink the time it takes to get that vaccine to a month, that is a massive step forward for humanity.”

However, others were keen to strike a note of caution on the AI goldrush. EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides emphasized the need for safeguards in AI-driven healthcare tools, including maintaining human oversight. The EU has already taken a leading position by rolling out its own AIA regulation, and Kyriakides added that “I believe that we can have all the potential that AI offers us and have the guardrails in place.”


Preparing for ‘Disease X’

Another buzzword last week was ‘Disease X,’ a hypothetical scenario for an unknown future pathogen with the potential to cause a global epidemic. As the COVID-19 pandemic showed, healthcare systems around the world were ill-prepared in terms of disease surveillance and primary healthcare. Moreover, inequalities in access to vaccines and medicines were pronounced. To survive future – as yet unknown – health crises, monikered ‘Disease X,’ capabilities in all these areas need to be improved.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) director-general explained that “There are things that are unknown, that may happen and anything happening is a matter of when, not if. So we need to have a placeholder for that, for the diseases we don’t know that may come, and that was when we gave the name ‘Disease X.'”


The Gender Health Gap & DEI

Davos emphasized the significant benefits of investing in women’s health and striving for gender equity. Research indicated that closing the gender health gap could boost the global economy by USD one trillion annually by 2040. Investing USD 300 million in research focused on women’s health was estimated to yield a USD 13 billion economic return, alongside improved healthcare quality and productivity.

“A topic that many women drove at Davos was the need for better data, research, and tools for women’s health,” writes Sandy Carter in Forbes. “McKinsey’s research shows that 44 percent of the female disease burden could be reduced with more consistent and timely delivery of proven existing interventions and breakthrough innovations.”

Finally, in line with the broader theme of “rebuilding trust,” discussions at Davos highlighted the importance of digital inclusion, leveraging diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for economic opportunities, and advancing racial and ethnic equity. Addressing these issues and fostering a diverse and equitable workplace were deemed crucial in rebuilding trust in various sectors.