The World Bank Sold Bonds to Help Poor Countries Contain Pandemics. But They’ve Never Been Paid Out.

The fine print on the pandemic bonds says there's a 12-week waiting period, and by then the $196 million may be too little, too late.

As Ebola spread through West Africa five years ago, the international community struggled to raise enough funds to help local governments control it. The World Bank decided it needed a way to quickly funnel money to developing countries so they can stop the spread of diseases before they become pandemics.

Its answer was to start selling pandemic bonds — essentially insurance from private-sector investors that would pay out in the case of a large outbreak.

The bonds pay a high interest rate, as much as 11% annually, to compensate investors for the risk they’re taking on. They were invested back in July 2017, with the stipulation that if there was no large outbreak in three years, investors would get all their money back. That means investors were set to cash them out this coming July.

But now the coronavirus is sweeping the globe, sickening at least 1.3 million people and killing more than 77,000, and the insurance still hasn’t been triggered. That's because the fine print on those bonds includes a 12-week waiting period for coronavirus outbreaks and a minimum number of deaths in at least two recipient countries.

The bonds will likely be triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, paying out up to $196 million. But it will be too late to help them stop the spread early in many developing countries. There’s a lot of other support money flowing to them — the World Bank alone plans to make $160 billion available — begging the question why the bonds were ever needed in the first place. Especially in light of the current crisis, many critics say the pandemic bonds were just another insurance scheme.

Graphics by Jay Liquori. Edited by Daniel Card.