COVID-19 is not the first virus to cause a pandemic, and unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be the last. We’ve seen firsthand how a viral outbreak can sweep across the world without the proper tools and protocols set in place to prevent a local epidemic from becoming a pandemic affecting people throughout the world.
Research indicates that the next pandemic could have an even more catastrophic impact and that its timing is impossible to predict. Because there is a reasonable likelihood that another pandemic is on the way, possibly even within the next decade, it is imperative that we improve our capabilities in order to better handle this type of viral threat along with any other biological hazard.
Learning From the Past
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed serious, fundamental flaws within America’s public health care system. Needing to strengthen our public health workforce and financing, revamp our data systems, and improve accessibility and communication between governments as well as between governments and the public, are just a few of the issues that need to be confronted. In order to better protect humanity against these types of biological threats, there are four critical public health gaps that must be addressed.
1. Strengthen Our Medical Defense
Improving vaccinations, therapies, and diagnostics are crucial steps in revolutionizing our medical defenses. Ideally we would have the ability to quickly and accurately access any virus family, making it possible to create an effective vaccine within a short period of time. In addition, production, distribution and administration of these vaccines would be streamlined and efficient across the country. Equally as important will be to have simple, reliable, and accessible diagnostic testing and treatment available after the recognition of an upcoming threat. The White House Office of Science and Technology set as its goal being ready with a new vaccine within 90 days of the emergence of any new threat.
2. Ensure Domestic and International Situational Awareness
The ability to detect viruses shortly after emergence would aid greatly in providing early warning and real-time updates for infectious threats. First, we would need to provide this type of detection in clinical settings both domestically and internationally. In order to do this, we would need to incorporate routine genome testing of samples from patients with unexplained symptoms such as a fever or respiratory issues. This will help us to detect emerging viral infections before they become widespread. The same concept should be applied to environmental monitoring, the difference being that the samples would come from wastewater.
Following that, we would need to create a global warning network: a system that connects us with real-time information about symptoms and other relevant information.
3. Develop More Robust Public Health Systems
We must update public health infrastructure around the world in order to enhance public health systems and effectively respond to catastrophes. Not only do we need to reform our public health workforce, but we also need to restructure the funding for research and infrastructure in high-risk areas both domestically and abroad. Furthermore, evidence-based public health communication should be a top priority. This would mean governments and public health officials would provide consistent, accurate, and free information to all residents. This information would be based on the conclusions of rigorously evaluated experiment results, and would support the data presented.
4. Focus on PPE & Biotechnology Development
Personal protective equipment (PPE) accessibility is a key challenge. Because pathogens can have a variety of features and capabilities of their own, we need to design ways to boost the overall effectiveness, usability, affordability, and even the comfort of said PPE. In addition, we need to develop the capacity to produce and deliver products quickly so that there is no supply chain disruption or shortage.
Another key concern is biosafety and the prevention of high-impact biological occurrences. We will need to expand our capacity to detect and mitigate safety/security hazards in biotechnology design and development, as well as share these tools globally, all while preventing and detecting the development of bioweapons.
Where Do We Stand Currently?
While it appears we are moving in the right direction in some of these initiatives, the rate of progress is not currently as fast or cohesive as it would need to be in order to ensure these goals are met before the next pandemic occurs. We need a unified and adequately funded program to prevent catastrophic pandemics from killing millions of people around the world. We also need to recognize that pandemics require a team effort so that patients in low and middle income countries are not left out of the solution. Mutations can occur anywhere.
What Can You Do to Prepare for the Next Pandemic at Home?
Given the likelihood that another worldwide pandemic may strike in the not-too-distant future, it’s a good idea to prepare and remain current on the newest information available. It is highly advisable that you:
- Get vaccinated and continue taking protective measures against viral threats.
- Reach out to your state and federal representatives urging them to push forward on public health planning with urgency. Pandemic planning requires strong local public health departments and sustained global funding.
- Support governmental representatives who prioritize public health and pandemic planning.
- Educate yourself about how to prevent the spread of disease. It is important to know that viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are most likely to spread from person to person and may be airborne like COVID-19.
- Prepare for the possibility of lockdowns and closings.
- Create an emergency plan to ensure that you and your family know what to do in case of an outbreak.
- Prepare yourself by learning basic medical knowledge, food preservation skills, and the techniques to build physical security at home.
- Examine your health insurance coverage to see what is covered, including telemedicine.