Jun 3, 2021 - Health

Prepping for the next big outbreak

Medical briefcase with a stethoscope

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Scientists and public health experts are trying to leverage lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic to spur the development of technologies and infrastructure needed to stop the next big outbreak.

Why it matters: Scientists predict infectious disease outbreaks will become more frequent, and the COVID-19 pandemic showed the enormous costs of not being adequately prepared.

Driving the news: Eric Lander, the newly confirmed White House science adviser, told AP's Seth Borenstein that, when the next pandemic-potential virus emerges, he wants to be able to have a vaccine available in about 100 days.

  • The main route to achieving that timeline depends on the further development of "plug-and-play" vaccine platforms, like the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and determining if they can be tested — and brought to market — more rapidly.
  • There are also efforts underway to create universal vaccines that protect against a range of flu viruses or coronaviruses, Axios' Caitlin Owens writes. But they face a number of technical and financial hurdles.

Beyond vaccines, there are calls to build out early warning systems for pandemics.

  • The technology exists to spot emerging pathogens, but there is a need to coordinate it globally, according to recommendations released today by the Milken Institute.
  • The authors say there's a need for a nongovernmental coordinating center that sits aside governments and works with existing institutions, including the WHO, and that better leverages the capabilities of the private sector. They envision building capacity at the local level for labs to sample and sequence pathogens and then feed that information into an appropriate response network.
  • "We don’t have a robust local presence or communication vehicle right now," says Esther Krofah, executive director of FasterCures at the Milken Institute.

Yes, but: Geopolitics can get in the way of the global buy-in and coordination needed for pandemic surveillance.

  • Our thought bubble: "Technologies like mRNA vaccines that can cover for inevitable and impossible-to-fix political weaknesses will be particularly valuable going forward," Axios' Bryan Walsh notes.

The bottom line: "The COVID-19 pandemic showed the fault lines of what we thought we were prepared for," says Carly Gasca of the Milken Institute.

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