The world is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a group of people is already thinking about the next global disease—and how to be ready.
According to experts in biological defense and epidemiology who spoke at the Fast Company Innovation Festival today, the tools needed include investment (both from the government and public-private partnerships, such as working with the philanthropic community); an early-warning system to prevent epidemics before they start spreading; incentives for industry to be involved; and creating and maintaining the infrastructure needed to tackle such a disease again.
“Clearly, this is a national security threat that will be dominant in the 21st century,” said Andrew Weber, a senior fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks and and the former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs. “For only about $15-$20 million a year over the next 5 to 10 years, we can eliminate the biological weapons threats as well as infectious diseases, but it has to be part of our national security effort and a priority.”
The pharmaceutical industry needs to be motivated to be involved, explained Megan Murray, professor of global health at Harvard Medical School, who researches using the BCG tuberculosis vaccine to reduce the severity of COVID-19. These companies take on risk when producing vaccines, so the answer might lay in working with the government and academia too.
She pointed to the importance of having logistics in place—from cold storage for vaccines to making dose packages in more manageable sizes—and working with other countries. In the case of zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to humans, such as COVID-19, there’s an additional issue, because that tends to happen in places where people and wilderness are close by.
“For Ebola, that happened in Guinea,” Murray said. “For the Nipah virus, it happened in Malaysia. For the first SARS, we don’t know how it actually got to southern China.”
She added that the best defense against such diseases is finding them early. “We need global surveillance, including these rural areas, which right now have very little in terms of healthcare,” Murray said.