The Next Pandemic: We’re Not Prepared

May 02 2023

The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably transformed our lives over the past three years and impacted our society, economy, and public health systems. Yet, despite numerous efforts to combat the pandemic, many unanswered questions still loom. In March, The New York Times Opinion section  launched a series around ‘The Next Pandemic‘ — exploring critical ideas and debates on pandemic preparedness with experts.

Here’s a look at what they had to say:

“The world needs to be prepared for the next Disease X, something capable of causing global catastrophic risks,” wrote Dr. Tom Inglesby, Director of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and Pandemic Preparedness Expert, in his latest opinion piece, ‘How to Prepare for the Next Pandemic‘.

This sentiment has been echoed by numerous world leaders and public health experts who recognize the critical importance of pandemic preparedness.

Over the past 50 years, from 1972 to 2022, we have seen how pandemics and epidemics have tremendously impacted our lives, resulting in over 42,392,920 deaths. Currently, 50 percent of these crises are still ongoing, and 83.3 percent of them have occurred since the year 2000. This data, among other things, emphasizes the urgent need for pandemic preparedness.

Dr. Inglesby emphasized, “As horrible as COVID has been — it remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States — it is not the worst-case scenario.” A worst-case scenario would be a virus with higher case fatality and efficient human-to-human respiratory spread. We know public health is influenced by everything around us: people, animals, and the environment. Unfortunately, the interconnectedness of these factors can lead to the spread of viruses as they jump from one species to another. That’s why it’s essential to acknowledge and tackle these connections through a holistic approach known as One Health.

Dr. Inglesby highlighted the need to anticipate and prepare for difficult policy decisions in advance, such as developing and distributing vaccines and tests more quickly, establishing a stronger stockpile of high-quality protective gear, and changing our approach to indoor air quality. He urges governments and private sector companies to seriously invest in pathogen agnostic research and development, clinical trials, regulatory review, and technologies such as mRNA that can be used for a range of “Disease X” threats.

In Bill Gates’s opinion piece, “How to Prevent the Next Pandemic,” he urges the world to prepare for future disease outbreaks just as it would prepare for fires. He argues that “the world needs a well-funded system that is ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice when danger emerges.”

Like other experts, Gates highlights the importance of a network of experts working together to prepare for the next pandemic. “[The Global Health Emergency Corps] — network of the world’s top health emergency leaders will work together to get ready for the next ‌‌pandemic,” says Gates. “Just as firefighters run drills to practice responding to a fire, the Emergency Corps plans to run drills to practice for outbreaks. The exercises will make sure the governments, health care providers, emergency health workers — know what to do when a potential outbreak emerges.”

Amy Maxmen, in her article, Brazil’s Favelas Offer Lessons in Building Trust, emphasized the importance of including marginal communities in pandemic preparedness strategies. Maxmen stated, “[Before the next pandemic] health officials and researchers would be wise to learn how to assist the communities that are most in need. That starts with recognizing the grass roots power that has kept them resilient for so long.”

This is why Ginkgo Biosecurity continues to prioritize investments in biosecurity, which serves as an early warning system for public health threats. By leveraging the power of pathogen genome sequencing, we can swiftly identify emerging disease variants and potential outbreaks. Essentially, we create a “weather map” for community leaders to make informed decisions on detecting, intercepting, and responding to biological threats.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased number of high-security bio labs that study dangerous pathogens and technology to develop the next generation of vaccines. Barney Graham, a physician-scientist who oversaw the work at the National Institutes of Health’s Vaccine Research Center for designing and evaluating the initial COVID-19 vaccines and antibodies, agrees with how rapidly the pandemic propelled science capabilities in his NYT piece. “The time from when the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences were available to when the first vaccines were authorized and injected into humans was about 11 months,” says Graham.

“Typically, vaccine development is measured in decades.” But, similar to many experts, Graham is concerned that “social order and national and global governance systems are not keeping pace.” He emphasized that next-generation technology will need adequate systems, global surveillance in high biodiversity areas, and continued investment in developing vaccines, antivirals, and diagnostics that will be needed to identify and respond to emerging threats.

Our approach to biosecurity goes beyond mitigating risk. At Ginkgo, we strive to empower communities to thrive by providing access to community health strategies that generate timely public health data. This information can assist public health leaders in making informed decisions that benefit their communities as we work towards creating a global immune system that will help prevent the devastating impact of future pandemics.

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