May 25, 2017

We need to study outbreaks in real-time

Our Expert Voices conversation on pandemics.

We don't spend enough time trying to understand why and how previous epidemics occurred or capturing information about them as they are unfolding. We're always chasing outbreaks and scrambling to get research in place long after it should be conducted. And once outbreaks pass, funding and research opportunity dries up.

A model: I'm writing this from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we're studying survivors of previous Ebola outbreaks (including the very first cohort from 1976) and comparing them to survivors of the current outbreak — rather than waiting and trying to get protocols and ethical approvals after the fact. As recent Ebola and Zika epidemics have demonstrated, governmental and traditional funding cycles are too slow and unresponsive to time-sensitive global health issues.

Bottom line: The research protocols, infrastructure and funding need to be in place so we can be on the ground capturing data as it becomes available. There are no shortage of major problems facing the world, but pandemics, with their unique combination of speed and deadliness, deserve far more attention than they're currently getting. Understanding previous outbreaks and being ready to capture critical data as new ones unfold should be a funding priority.

Other voices in the conversation:

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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, the CDC, and China's Health Ministry. Note: China numbers are for the mainland only and U.S. numbers include repatriated citizens.

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