The great epidemiologist Larry Brilliant once said that “outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional.” I thought about this quote and what it reveals about the COVID-19 pandemic often while I was working on my new book.
On the one hand, it’s disheartening to imagine how much loss and suffering could’ve been avoided if we’d only made better choices. We are now more than two years into the pandemic. The world did not prioritize global health until it was too late, and the result has been catastrophic. Countries failed to prepare for pandemics, rich countries reduced funding for R&D, and most governments failed to strengthen their health systems. Although we’re finally reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, COVID still kills several thousand people every day.
On the other hand, Dr. Brilliant’s quote makes me feel hopeful. No one wants to live through this again—and we don’t have to. Outbreaks are inevitable, but pandemics are optional. The world doesn’t need to live in fear of the next pandemic. If we make key investments that benefit everyone, COVID-19 could be the last pandemic ever.
This idea is what my book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic , is all about. I’ve been part of the effort to stop COVID since the early days of the outbreak, working together with experts from inside and out of the Gates Foundation who have been fighting infectious diseases for decades. I’m excited to share what I've learned along the way, because our experience with COVID gives us a clear pathway for how to be ready next time.
So, how do we do it? In my book, I explain the steps we need to take to get ready. Together, they add up to a plan for eliminating the pandemic as a threat to humanity. These steps—alongside the remarkable progress we’ve already made over the last two years in creating new tools and understanding infectious diseases—will reduce the chance that anyone has to live through another COVID.
Imagine a scenario like this: A concerning outbreak is rapidly identified by local public health agencies, which function effectively in even the world’s poorest countries. Anything out of the ordinary is shared with scientists for study, and the information is uploaded to a global database monitored by a dedicated team.
If a threat is detected, governments sound the alarm and initiate public recommendations for travel, social distancing, and emergency planning. They start using the blunt tools that are already on hand, such as quarantines, antivirals that protect against almost any strain, and tests that can be performed anywhere.
If this isn’t sufficient, then the world’s innovators immediately get to work developing new tests, treatments, and vaccines. Diagnostics in particular ramp up extremely fast so that large numbers of people can be tested in a short time. New drugs and vaccines are approved quickly, because we’ve agreed ahead of time on how to run trials safely and share the results. Once they’re ready to go into production, manufacturing gears up right away because factories are already in place and approved.
No one gets left behind, because we’ve already worked out how to rapidly make enough vaccines for everyone. Everything gets where it’s supposed to, when it’s supposed to, because we’ve set up systems to get products delivered all the way to the patient. Communications about the situation are clear and avoid panic.
And this all happens quickly. The goal is to contain outbreaks within the first 100 days before they ever have the chance to spread around the world. If we had stopped the COVID pandemic before 100 days, we could’ve saved over 98 percent of the lives lost.
I hope people who read the book come away with a sense that ending the threat of pandemics forever is a realistic, achievable, and essential goal. I believe this is something that everyone—whether you’re an epidemiologist, a policymaker, or just someone who’s exhausted from the last two years–should care about.
The best part is we have an opportunity to not just stop things from getting worse but to make them better. Even when we’re not facing an active outbreak, the steps we can take to prevent the next pandemic will also make people healthier, save lives, and shrink the health gap between the rich and the poor. The tools that stop an outbreak can also help us find and treat more HIV cases. They can protect more children from deadly diseases like malaria, and they can give more people around the world access to high quality care.
Shrinking the health gap was the life’s work of my friend Paul Farmer, who tragically died in his sleep in February. That’s why I’m dedicating my proceeds from this book to his organization Partners in Health, which provides amazing health care to people in some of the poorest countries in the world. I will miss Paul deeply, but I am comforted by the knowledge that his influence will be felt for decades to come.
If there’s one thing the world has learned over the last two years, it’s that we can’t keep living with the threat of another variant—or another pathogen—hanging over our heads. This is a pivotal moment. There is more momentum than ever before to stop pandemics forever. No one who lived through COVID will ever forget it. Just like a war can change the way a generation looks at the world, COVID has changed the way we see the world.
Although it may not always feel like it, we have made tremendous progress over the last two years. New tools will let us respond faster next time, and new capabilities have made us better prepared to fight deadly pathogens. The world wasn’t ready for COVID, but we can choose to be ready next time.