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Pandemic preventers
These grad students could help stop the next outbreak
I met with 33 scientists in my latest Gates Notes Deep Dive.
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The most enjoyable part of writing my latest book may have been profiling some of the brilliant people behind the innovations that will help prevent pandemics. Dr. Katalin Karikó, for instance, is the scientist whose research laid the groundwork for mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 and paved the way for developing future vaccines faster than ever. I also wrote about the scientists behind the Seattle Flu Study and SCAN, an ingenious program that helped identify the first cases of community transmission of COVID in the United States, and that I hope will serve as a model for future disease surveillance work in other regions.

I recently got to meet with 33 scientists who you may be reading about in future books about how COVID became the last pandemic. They’re graduate students who are working in fields related to pandemic prevention, and the occasion was my third Gates Notes Deep Dive, a series that brings together diverse groups of people from around the world to explore one topic in depth. Previous deep dives have focused on education and on malaria; the conversation this time was centered on how to make sure that disease outbreaks don’t go global.

Before we met, I listened as three experts spoke to the students. Dr. Sofonias Tessema, who runs the Africa Pathogen Genomics Institute, talked about advances in disease detection and monitoring. (I’ve just published a separate post profiling him.) Then Dr. Padmini Srikantiah, who leads the Gates Foundation’s work on a deadly respiratory virus known as RSV, explored what went well and what didn’t with COVID vaccines and how the world can do better next time. Finally, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, who leads the Skoll Foundation’s pandemic prevention work, spoke about what it will take to build and sustain a global pandemic prevention system.

Then it was my turn to meet with the students. I loved hearing their questions and talking with them about the next wave of innovations—and the role they can play in getting those innovations to everyone who needs them.

One student asked about the idea of the GERM team that I propose in the book, and how GERM would work differently in high-income and low-income countries. In high-income countries, the team would mostly be working with well-funded public health institutions that have a lot of expertise. At the other end of the income scale, GERM might need to work with partners like Médecins Sans Frontières and the countries themselves to develop plans that don't rely on a lot of government capacity.

Another student cut to the chase and asked: When can the world be ready to prevent pandemics? I think it will take a decade or so. Some parts of the pandemic-prevention system, such as the GERM team, can be put in place sooner than that, and I hope that some innovations such as vaccines that are easier to deliver will be ready sooner too. But other key tools will take longer to develop and test. And we know from experience that it takes years to put together the kind of political and data-sharing agreements that will be necessary. So I think ten years is a challenging but reachable goal.

I told the students that one area where the younger generations can make a big difference is in fighting misinformation. I’ve seen misinformation on a smaller scale for years, especially through work on polio eradication, but the problem was far worse during COVID than I ever imagined. We need people who grew up with the latest social-media tools to be working on questions like: Why didn’t the truth get the same visibility as the lies? How do we do a better job getting the counter-narrative out? I was happy to hear that one of the students had just submitted his thesis on those very questions.

I was also happy to hear from a student who’s working on universal vaccines—ones that would protect you from every possible strain of influenza, for example. These would be a huge breakthrough, because you wouldn’t have to worry about different strains being able to evade your immune system. Flu pandemics would no longer be a threat.

I’m grateful to the three speakers who spoke to the grad students, and to the foundation’s Dr. Alaa Murabit, who moderated the event. And I’m inspired by the students themselves. It’s exciting to know that they—and thousands of other smart people like them—are committed to developing and deploying the innovations that will protect the world from future pandemics.

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