When I sat down to write my new book, my goal was to create a concrete list of steps the world could take to prevent the next pandemic. There’s a lot we can and should learn from COVID-19. But I knew that I wanted to focus more on the future instead of the past.
For decades, people told the world to get ready for a pandemic, but hardly anyone made it a priority. Then COVID struck, and stopping it became the most important thing on the global agenda. Governments need to take action now to get ready for the next pathogen, while all of us still remember how awful COVID was (and still is) and feel the urgency of never allowing another one to happen.
If we’re going to make COVID-19 the last pandemic, the world needs to get to work right away on three key areas:
1. Make and deliver better tools.
The story of Katalin Kariko and mRNA vaccines proves that ideas for new tools must often be nurtured and researched, sometimes for decades, before they produce anything of practical value. That’s why step one in any pandemic-prevention plan should be to keep investing in better vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
You can read more about how new vaccines can be developed and delivered faster here. This includes improving our ability to test and approve new products, as well as scaling up manufacturing capacity and creating better way of delivering vaccines (like microneedle patches) so we can get out lots of doses fast.
On the therapeutics front, it took nearly two years to find effective treatments for COVID. The trajectory of the pandemic would’ve looked a lot different if we had found them sooner. We need to build out the systems that will allow us to make new treatments much faster in the future.
One key step is to create a library of antiviral compounds that are designed to attack common respiratory viruses, so that we can more easily find out if an existing drug will work in the event of an outbreak. We can also take advantage of advances in artificial intelligence and other computational methods. A computer could quickly scan a 3D model of a pathogen to figure out which drugs might be effective against it. It would be able to tell you which drugs look promising, figure out how to improve them, and, if necessary, even design new ones from scratch.
We should also expand incentives for generics manufacturers to create low-cost versions of new drugs. This can be achieved through advance orders on behalf of low- and middle-income countries, which get generic drugmakers to start manufacturing a new drug through advance orders and agreements that allow one company to manufacture a drug invented by another company even while it’s still going through regulatory approvals.
Another area where we need to spark more innovation is in diagnostics. Researchers should keep working on—and funders should keep supporting—high-throughput PCR tests, which have all the benefits of a PCR but are significantly faster at returning results, much cheaper to run, and easier to adapt to a new pathogen. We also need to support work on new types of tests that make it easier to collect samples and turn around results quickly, like better versions of the rapid antigen tests that many of us now take at home for COVID or even handheld devices that health workers can use to easily test people in their community. And testing should be tied to treatment, so if you test positive, you get the medication you need right away.
2. Improve disease monitoring.
Creating the GERM—Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization—team is one of the most important steps we can take to stop the next pandemic. GERM will play a crucial role in virtually every aspect of pandemic prevention, but improving monitoring will be the most significant part of their mandate.
GERM is only one piece of the puzzle, though. Another crucial step is to improve civil registration and vital statistics in the developing world. At a minimum, many low- and middle-income countries need stronger registries of births and deaths, so that GERM can work with local organizations to more easily spot if there’s an unusual pattern worth investigating. Then, building on that foundation, countries should expand into autopsies that use minimally invasive tissue samplings, wastewater surveillance, and other practices.
The world’s disparate disease monitoring systems also need to be integrated so that public health officials can rapidly detect pathogens. Data must be made available in real time, with test results integrated into the public health system so that officials can watch for outbreaks. And in countries like the United States, where testing can be extremely expensive, governments need to make diagnostics cheaper and more accessible to everyone.
Finally, we need to expand our capacity to sequence the genomes of pathogens in order to track new variants. We should double down on investments in projects like the Africa Pathogen Genomics Initiative, a network of labs across the continent that share genomic data with each other, and in new tools that will let us sequence more genomes in more places.
3. Strengthen health systems.
Good health care starts with good health systems. That’s true for basic care, and it’s especially true for pandemic prevention. When a new or deadly pathogen emerges, you need somewhere for sick people to reliably seek treatment. You need health workers who can identify potential threats and the infrastructure to report anything out of the ordinary. And, once a pathogen starts to spread, you need trained professionals who can administer higher level tests, treatments, vaccines, and more.
The pandemic devastated health systems around the world, but the need in low-income countries is especially acute. The fundamental challenge is that they don’t have the funding, expert capacity, or institutions they need to offer basic health services to all their people, let alone manage a major outbreak. And during the pandemic, the problem got worse, as many rich governments cut foreign aid or took money from work on other diseases and redirected it to COVID.
We need to reverse this trend. A major part of the Gates Foundation’s work has been to help improve health systems—investments that both save lives, end preventable infectious diseases, and pave the way for economic growth. But philanthropy alone cannot close the gap between rich and poor countries. The models for wealthy countries are still Sweden and Norway, who each give at least 0.7 of their GDP in aid. If we’re going to be serious about preventing the next pandemic, we need to not just go back to pre-COVID aid levels but increase investments in strengthening health systems (which will also help shrink the overall health gap between the rich and the poor).
For their part, low- and middle-income countries should focus on health spending that achieves many things at once. For example, hiring more health workers gives you more people who can manage malaria cases, offer HIV testing and treatment, and give public officials unprecedented insight into what’s causing illness and death in their country.
But as COVID made clear, low- and middle-income countries aren’t the only ones that need to strengthen their health systems. There are steps that countries at every income level should consider, like improving primary health care and deciding in advance of a crisis who will oversee what. Governments and donors also need a global forum where they can coordinate action with poor countries.
All of these efforts—new tools, better disease surveillance, and improved health systems—won’t be cheap, but they will save lives and money in the long run. I estimate that, over the next decade, governments combined need to spend $15 to $20 billion per year to develop the tools we need. Strengthening health system will cost the world an extra $30 billion a year, on top of the money we should already be spending to improve health in low income countries.
That sounds like a lot of money until you learn that the International Monetary Fund estimates this pandemic will cost $12.5 trillion over just five years. Think of it like insurance. This is the billions we need to spend in order to save millions of lives and trillions of dollars.
And here’s the best news: Even when we’re not facing an active outbreak, these investments will make people healthier, save lives, and shrink the health gap between the rich and the poor. This is an opportunity to not just stop things from getting worse but to make them better.
We don’t need to surrender to living in perpetual fear of another global catastrophe. But we do need to remain aware of the possibility and be willing to do something about it. I hope the world seizes this moment and invests in the steps needed to make COVID-19 the last pandemic.