All about pandemic catastrophe bonds

In previous articles, we discussed how communicable diseases and pandemics are (or are not) addressed in personal and commercial insurance policies. Today, we’ll talk about pandemic catastrophe bonds.

The Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 ultimately resulted in more than 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths, most of them concentrated in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

The outbreak inspired the World Bank to develop a so-called “pandemic catastrophe bond,” an instrument designed to quickly provide financial support in the event of an outbreak. The World Bank reportedly estimated that if the West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak had had quicker access to financial support, then only 10 percent of the total deaths would have occurred.

But wait, what are “catastrophe bonds” and what’s so special about a pandemic bond?

“Traditional” catastrophe bonds

Like good old-fashioned insurance, catastrophe bonds are a way to transfer risk, often for natural disasters. They usually work like this: investors buy a high-yield bond issued by an insurance company. If a specific qualifying event occurs, such as if claims from a natural disaster exceed a certain amount (an “indemnity trigger”), the bond holders forfeit the principal of the bond, which goes to the insurer to help defray costs.

Catastrophe bonds are high-risk investments – hence the high yields they pay to investors to compensate for that risk. After all, there’s a pretty good chance a sizeable hurricane will hit in any given year.

Pandemic catastrophe bonds

Pandemic catastrophe bonds are similar. An entity (like the World Bank) sells a bond, which pays interest to the investors over time. If certain triggers occur, then the principal from the bond sale is quickly funneled to medical efforts to contain and quell the disease outbreak. That way, affected regions don’t have to wait for aid money to be raised and coordinated.

Pandemic bonds are somewhat different from traditional catastrophe bonds, though. Remember, traditional catastrophe bond triggers are usually based on insurance losses (indemnity triggers), which don’t make much sense in the context of a disease outbreak. Insurance losses can take quite some time to adjust and finalize.

There’s no time for that kind of thing when we’re dealing with a pandemic. Capital needs to move quickly to the affected region. So if a trigger can be quickly determined, then the capital payouts can be made quickly as well.

That’s why pandemic bonds are triggered by, for example, the number of patients or the speed of disease spread (a “parametric trigger”). Parametric triggers are usually objectively verifiable, such as how many cases of a disease have been reported in a given time. Once that trigger is activated, the bond gets to work. No further adjustment needed.

Why are catastrophe bonds useful for fighting pandemics?

And that’s what makes pandemic bonds attractive for addressing disease outbreaks: speed. Since pandemic bonds are not triggered by losses, but rather by the actual, real-time spread of the disease, capital can flow much faster than if it had to wait until insurance losses began rolling in. That means near-immediate financial support for health clinics, aid workers, containment efforts, and more.

Indeed, the speed of capital flow to emergency response is crucial for pandemics. Global supply chains and interchange, not to mention the exponential growth in international travel, mean that disease outbreaks can spread much faster and can cause much more widespread damage than in the past. The faster a disease can be nipped in the bud, the fewer people infected – and the less disastrous the outbreak.

Pandemic bonds in the real world

In 2016 the World Bank developed the Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility (PEF), which created, in part, a pandemic catastrophe bond to help provide capital in the event of another disease outbreak in West Africa. The PEF is triggered by number of deaths, speed of disease spread, and the spread of disease across international borders, and provides coverage for six viruses, including Ebola. The program has been supported by private reinsurers as well, including Munich Re and Swiss Re.

You can learn more about the PEF here.

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