Virus fallout: World Bank ‘pandemic bonds’ plummet in value

The bank issued the bonds in 2017 to help the poorest countries deal with health emergencies like the coronavirus.

Ebola Guinea
An Ebola prevention poster outside an Ebola treatment centre in Guinea, West Africa, where an outbreak of the disease claimed more than 11,000 lives and devastated economies [File: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg]

A World Bank bond designed to deliver funding to help the world’s poorest countries tackle fast-spreading diseases has lost half its value as investors fear hefty losses caused by the coronavirus outbreak in China.

The World Bank launched bond and insurance instruments in 2017 following the 2013 to 2016 Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, which killed at least 11,300 people. Launched under the bank’s Pandemic Emergency Financing umbrella in 2017, these instruments were designed to be speedily employed where needed.

However, the so-called pandemic bonds came under fire after the second-worst Ebola outbreak on record, which raged in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and killed more than 2,000 people without the release of funds to help affected countries.

The bonds, issued by the World Bank’s International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), offer investors high coupons in return for the risk of having to forgo some or all their money in the event of pandemic outbreaks of a number of infectious diseases. 

With the coronavirus outbreak having infected more than 74,000 people and claimed more than 2,000 lives, prices for the IBRD pandemic bond with the highest investment risk – the Class B notes – have come under increasing pressure.

Offer prices quoted by one broker have slipped as low as 45 cents on the dollar, while another broker is quoting 62.5 cents, market sources told Reuters news agency.

“We all get the feeling that epidemics have become more and more frequent – we had SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and Ebola and swine flu all within a short space of time,” said an investor who holds some of the World Bank’s pandemic debt.

The bonds have also come under fire for failing to deliver sufficient or timely aid. In the case of a coronavirus outbreak for the Class B notes, this is 84 days from when the World Health Organization (WHO) publishes its first “situation report”. In the current outbreak, that would be in mid-April.

“The money for these bonds could have been better spent in providing the WHO with funds or help[ing] strengthen healthcare provisions in poor countries at risk,” said Bodo Ellmers, director of sustainable development finance at Global Policy Forum, an independent policy watchdog.

“It was an ideology-driven idea to get the private sector involved in humanitarian and emergency finance – and I think we have to say this has failed.”

The World Bank declined to comment.

Source: Reuters