The Next Pandemic: How Ready Are You?
By Eugene S. Robinson
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the world’s first modern public health crisis — Zika, Ebola, SARS, MERS and HIV preceded it. Yet its rapid spread, global reach and repeated waves have changed the world in ways that are impossible to have imagined 16 months ago. Nearly 4 million people have died from the virus. Now, epidemiologists are already preparing for the next pandemic, trying to predict where and how it might emerge and developing the tools we need to combat it better than how we tackled COVID-19. Today’s Daily Dose lifts the curtain on that race against time. So grab some zinc and dive in.
what winning looks like
Help Science Win: Never before have scientists and pharma firms designed, tested and mass-manufactured vaccines to combat any disease as fast as they have during the pandemic. Yet millions of people around the world — many of them in rich countries — are refusing to take vaccines even as poorer nations wait desperately to receive more shots. That vaccine skepticism has been fueled by conspiracy theories that scientists fear could damage public trust in science in the long run.
Pandemic Preventive Plan? Start With the 2 E’s! The key to preventing pandemics of the future might be as easy as addressing both ecological and economic concerns. Stopping deforestation and curbing wet markets would be a major step toward preventing disease pathways from animals to humans, which is how COVID-19 and several other viral infections are widely believed to have struck us.
Priceless Prevention: Money can’t buy you love. But it can buy us life. To truly forestall future pandemics, we’ll need to invest several billions of dollars now, in everything from cutting-edge research into vaccines and antimicrobial resistance to global health partnerships and a surveillance program where the task before epidemiologists will be to identify viral threats before they become a deadly reality. Is it money well spent? If it means we can avoid repeating the last year we endured . . . without a doubt.
Hospitals? Only if You Have to: From Argentina to Namibia, hospitals are overrun with patients. Other countries, including the U.S., were in the same boat earlier in the pandemic. But how many of those sick people actually need to be cared for at a hospital, rather than at home? In fact, in the case of COVID-19, most people can be treated at home, allowing health care facilities to focus on only the most serious cases. Keep that in mind for future pandemics.
Tomorrow Belongs to South Korea: After battling severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003 and Middle East respiratory syndrome in 2015, the country keeps an infectious disease outbreak plan ready, updating it every five years. That seems smart, given that Bill Gates predicted on The Carlos Watson Show that we could start seeing global health threats at least once a decade. South Korea’s plan allowed the government to quickly rally the private sector while running widespread, effective testing and contact tracing. As of Monday, only 1,988 South Koreans had died from COVID-19. Up through February this year, there were many days when America was losing more people than that each day.
Drop and Give Us 20: It turns out that all of the bromides about exercise being the key to warding off a host of ailments aren’t just bromides. After a 10-months study, scientists have concluded that those who exercise regularly are likely to be less affected by COVID-19 than those who don’t work out. So get on it.
the unusual suspects
Bats: Yes. The furry and friendly insect-eaters are behind the Nipah virus, which World Health Organization experts rate as among the top 10 most dangerous pathogens that have the potential to spark the next pandemic. Asia is particularly vulnerable. The Nipah virus has a death rate that can reach 75 percent, and there is no vaccine. It’s a reminder of the risks we face as humans increasingly encroach on bat habitats.
Camels: These laid back, ponderous ships of the desert have been found responsible for transmitting the MERS virus to humans in East Africa and the Middle East. Not just that, they’re more efficient at transmitting the virus than humans are.
Mink: Denmark culled 17 million mink last November after the species was found to be carrying a variant of COVID-19. But if the Scandinavian nation thought it had seen the last of the creatures, it was in for a surprise. Mink carcasses rose from their graves like zombies because of gases released by the dead bodies, sparking fresh concerns that they could still spread the virus. Denmark is now in the process of exhuming and burning those carcasses.
Rochelle Walensky: The CDC director underwent a baptism by fire as a young medical intern at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1990s, when she and her colleagues would each night admit multiple HIV/AIDS-infected patients, only to see several of them die. Today she’s in charge of ensuring that America is better prepared for the next public health crisis than it was for HIV/AIDS or COVID-19. But she sees it as part of her mandate to reverse the anti-science pressures under which CDC staff worked during President Donald Trump’s administration. She wants to “unmuzzle” her colleagues . . . all while following science.
Supaporn Wacharapluesadee: The Thai virus hunter tracked down the first COVID-19 case outside China last year, effectively alerting the world to the impending pandemic that was to shake nearly every part of the planet. But as one of the world’s leading bat virus researchers, Wacharapluesadee also holds the key to detecting threats like the Nipah virus before they reach the scale of COVID-19. You’ll find her in her lab past 10 p.m. when she’s not stomping around forests, trying to obtain blood samples from bats for her research. It takes a creature of the night to decode the mysteries of the nocturnal species.
John Nkengasong: The Cameroonian virologist heads the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and is on the front line of efforts to ensure that a third wave of COVID-19 doesn’t undo the continent’s relative success in warding off the worst of the pandemic. Yet if Africa, recipient of the fewest vaccines in the world so far and battling a decline in testing, does face a crisis similar to what engulfed India starting in April, Nkengasong would be justified in saying: “I told you so.” He had warned in 2019 that Africa needed to bolster local public health investments and leadership to better prepare for the next pandemic. Now Africa’s listening, with Senegal planning to start manufacturing COVID-19 vaccines from next year.
When Fauci Speaks, We Listen: “It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so tragic,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci at OZY Fest 2021 about the divisiveness spurred on by the government’s ineffective responses to the pandemic. “It’s kind of like being in a world war and instead of fighting the enemy outside, the Army and Navy are shooting at each other.” Fauci’s suggestion: Let’s do less of that. See more on OZY.
Early Warning: Places that are prone to earthquakes have early warning systems to detect seismic activity. So it makes sense for us to have an early warning system for viruses too, right? Well, we did have one, called PREDICT, until it was defunded by the Trump administration in the months leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, scientists are convinced that such monitoring networks are vital if we want to catch the next infection before it becomes a public health crisis.
Vaccine Shotguns: If COVID-19 keeps mutating, it’s possible that we’ll soon see a variant that is resistant to existing vaccines. The only long-term fix might be vaccines that are designed to fight not just a specific coronavirus, but a range of viruses. Lucky then that scientists are already working on such vaccines. If they succeed, the world stands a better chance of preventing a repeat of the carnage of the past 18 months.
Local Supply Chains: Globalization is great in normal times. But the past year has shown us how overwhelming dependence on supply chains in another part of the world can prove a recipe for disaster when a crisis brings transport and trade to a halt. We’ve also seen ample evidence of vaccine nationalism, with rich nations hoarding doses for months before agreeing to share them with poorer countries. That’s why it’s important for different parts of the world to develop their own health care supply chains. Among the progress made to that end, the African Union has decided to build five vaccine manufacturing units, while in Latin America, Mexico and Argentina are partnering to produce vaccines for the region. Read more on OZY.