Rethinking How We Prepare for The Next Pandemic
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has highlighted the fundamental role that research and innovation play in protecting people from the potential deadly effects of infectious diseases. It has also opened a window of opportunity for countries to rethink the way they prepare for public health crises of the future.
Over the last two years, we have seen just how vulnerable our world is, with millions of people being infected or dying from the virus, and economies being shattered in the process. Presidents, prime ministers, and heads of international and regional bodies across the globe have had to make quick decisions on how to respond, often with minimal understanding of the disease they are dealing with. We’ve also seen examples of poor leadership and a lack of coordination within and between governments and international organizations, with politics often overriding public health interests.
Collectively, the global scientific research community has risen to the challenge imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Information was generated, shared, and deployed at record speed in response to the virus, and collaboration between academia, pharma, and biotechs became the norm.
Writing in Nature Medicine,1 John N. Nkengasong, Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized global connectivity, vulnerability, and inequities. The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic also revealed several fault lines: protectionism versus global cooperation, and politics versus public health.
“We must learn lessons about how the world responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, as it will not be the final pandemic to challenge the world.”
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of Government Science and Engineering Profession wrote in an article published in the Financial Times2 that we should be planning for future pandemics and aim to have vaccines and therapeutics available at scale within 100 days. “We need to reduce the chance of emergent infectious threats by detecting them quickly and taking decisive action to contain them. These are prerequisites. But we should also stock our arsenal and be prepared to respond.
“Imagine if we’d had safe, effective and high-quality vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics available at scale within 100 days of this pandemic being declared. The world might have already been back to normal. This should be our aim for the future.”
It must be noted that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is not the first coronavirus outbreak the world has experienced in the past 20 years – in 2002, SARS-CoV infected more than 8,000 people and killed over 800, and four years later MERS-CoV infected over 2,400 and killed more than 850 – and it likely won’t be the last.
With this in mind, a team of international researchers used genomic data from modern human populations to better understand how humans have adapted to historical coronavirus outbreaks. “If we can identify ancient pandemics then that knowledge could, and should, feed into our pandemic preparedness strategy in the future,” explained Kirill Alexandrov, Professor of Synthetic Biology at Queensland University of Technology in Australia and one of the study’s lead authors.
For their study,3 the researchers examined genomic data from 26 human populations from five continental regions to identify possible signatures of adaptation to viruses, with a particular focus on viral interacting proteins (VIPs). They then used protein-protein interaction assays to validate the direct interactions between the selected CoV-VIPs and SARS-CoV-2.
“If we know what viruses have jumped previously, this can be a predictor of the future and so we can be more prepared in terms of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines than we were with this pandemic,” said Alexandrov. He added that genes with ancient viral histories might also aid researchers in their search for potential antiviral drugs.
The full article, which highlights the tools and technologies Alexandrov’s team used for their work, is available to download now.
- Nkengasong J. COVID-19: unprecedented but expected. Nature Medicine. 2021;27(3):364-364.
- Patrick Vallance: How the world should prepare for the next pandemic [Internet]. Ft.com. 2021 [cited 12 October 2021]. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/69050b94-0bf0-46b4-9695-3376347214fc
- Souilmi Y, Lauterbur M, Tobler R, Huber C, Johar A, Moradi S et al. An ancient viral epidemic involving host coronavirus interacting genes more than 20,000 years ago in East Asia. Current Biology. 2021.