What Does the World Cup Have to Do With Skoll's Work on Pandemics?

Mass gatherings are always a germ fest, and chances are you probably wouldn’t think of them as an opportunity to stop the spread of disease. But that’s just how Skoll Global Threats Fund (SGTF) sees the FIFA World Cup.

Skoll is supporting a mobile app that allows World Cup goers to self-report their health over the duration of the event. The aim is to get fans to report their health – coded as “very good,” “good,” “ill” or “very ill.” Should a fan report that they are sick, they are then asked to “to indicate one or more symptoms from a list of ten, including fever, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and headache.” 

Additionally, the app then asks fans to report if they have had contact with someone whom they know has the same symptoms. The idea is that government health agencies could then send in human surveillance teams if a high number of fans in a particular region begin reporting similar symptoms, and there seems to be a pattern of illness spreading.

The Skoll Global Threats Fund (SGTF), started, of course, by eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, has been getting positive coverage regarding its anti-pandemic efforts lately. Just last month, the fund's president, Larry Brilliant, was profiled by Wired UK, calling him “humanity’s best hope against the next pandemic.”

Skoll has moved into and interesting niche under Brilliant's leadership. Not a lot of funders work on pandemics, which rank right up there with climate change as a top existential threat to humanity. Brilliant describes major global pandemics this way: "...no planes are flying for six months and hundreds of millions of people are dying." Such a pandemic could actually be far more catastrophic than the projected consequences of climate change over the next century. But philanthropy has, by and large, ceded this terrain to government agencies. 

Skoll and Brilliant are changing that, and SGTF has quickly become an important player in the pandemic space. In a talk last fall, Brilliant said that "ending pandemics"—not just curbing them, mind you—was a great example of the kind of big bet that philanthropy can make. Exactly how much money Jeff Skoll is spending in this area is hard to say, but it's definitely on top of Brilliant's agenda as president of the fund. 

And the work is pretty hands-on. Wired notes that with pandemic teams at SGTF, the goals are “detecting an outbreak faster, verifying that it's a real sign and getting a connected network of people to talk about what's going on.” The World Cup app is just another part of SGTF’s work in “developing participatory surveillance” aimed at hitting those goals, such as the Flu Near You reporting system in the United States. 

The app is a pilot project testing the efficacy of real-time reporting in combating outbreaks. “If it proves successful, it could serve as a model for similar mass gathering events, such as the Hajj to Mecca or the Olympics.” 

This is all scary stuff. But it's reassuring that at least one major philanthropist is on the case in a big way.