To me, the ability of science to prevent and cure disease is magical—and the magic starts in places like the NIH.
Last week, I went to the TED conference in Vancouver. It was my first time back at TED since 2015, when I gave a speech about how the world wasn’t ready for the next epidemic.
A lot of people watched that talk, but almost all of the views came after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This time, I spoke about the same subject, but a lot had changed. No one in the audience needed to be convinced that a deadly virus could kill millions of people around the world and upend our lives.
My talk was all about how we can make COVID-19 the last pandemic. I believe we can eliminate the threat of pandemics completely if we approach infectious diseases like we approach fires. We need a well-oiled system in place, complete with full-time professional personnel and innovative tools ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice.
You can watch my full talk here:
Giving a TED talk is always a memorable (and nerve-wracking!) experience. I started thinking about what I wanted to say a couple months ago. I decided to focus on what I call the GERM—Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization—team, a new full-time, paid group whose entire job is to prepare for the next outbreak. I talk a lot about GERM in my upcoming book, but this was the first time I was going to speak about GERM publicly at length.
One of the coolest things about TED is how visual all the talks are. I had the opportunity to make sure the graphics for mine looked okay during a rehearsal. I also got to practice bringing the Roman fire brigade bucket I was using as a prop onto the stage. (It’s a lot heavier than it looks!)
On the morning of my talk, I made sure to find some quiet time backstage to review my notes. I believe that this moment in time—two-plus years into the pandemic, as COVID slowly becomes endemic and the acute phase comes to an end—is a crucial one for pandemic prevention. We need to convince the world to get ready for another pandemic while COVID-19 is still fresh in everyone’s minds.
When the time came to give the actual talk, I was ready and excited to speak about GERM. There’s currently no full-time international team of experts standing by to respond to an outbreak as soon as one emerges. If we’re going to prevent the next pandemic, the world needs the infectious disease equivalent of firefighters—a group of in-country and global epidemiologists, data scientists, logistics experts, and more who are ready to go anywhere in the world on a moment’s notice.
We also put on an exhibit at TED called “The Last Pandemic.” The concept was simple: What if you could visit a museum exhibit about the last pandemic the world ever faced—COVID-19—fifty years in the future? What memories and artifacts from the last two years would be in it? And what would it reveal about how we created a world free from the threat of pandemics?
Each room featured a different theme, like the tools we used to stop COVID or maps that showed how quickly the virus spread around the world. As you walked through the exhibit, you moved forward in time and eventually ended up in a room filled with newspaper and magazine headlines from a world without pandemics. It was inspiring to imagine a future where no one has to live in fear of another COVID-19.
My favorite part was the room about life on the frontlines, which featured six healthcare workers from across the U.S. who were eager to share their stories. Their experiences were varied. Joe Gorga, an ICU pulmonologist who worked at one of the first hospitals in New York City to get hit hard, showed me a photo of his mentor, who died from COVID in April 2020. Kristin Dascomb, an infectious disease doctor from Utah, not only treated patients but also worked on ways to keep her fellow healthcare workers safe. Nathan Starr, a hospitalist, told me how he helped set up Hospital at Home, a program that treated more than 700 people. Brad Thorup, a trauma nurse, shared how frustrated he was when he saw how many of the people admitted to his unit were unvaccinated. Gustavo Vargas and Jessica Green, who are both nurse anesthetists, told me about how challenging and scary it was to intubate people in the early days before they had the right PPE.
I got pretty emotional listening to them talk about their experiences. I later learned that many of the people who visited the exhibit cried when they spoke to the healthcare workers, and I understand why. Each of them is a true hero. I was honored to get to thank them firsthand for all they have done to save lives. (If you’re interested in hearing stories like theirs, The Nocturnists’ “Stories from a Pandemic” podcast is terrific.)
It was great to see so many people visit “The Last Pandemic.” I even had the opportunity to catch up with several of the Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers—Farwiza Farhan, Kathryn Finney, and Boniface Mwangi—when they stopped by. I loved getting to hear about their latest work to make the world a healthier and more equitable place.
I’m planning to spend a lot of time talking about how we can make COVID the last pandemic in the weeks and months ahead, because I believe this is one of the most important issues facing the world today. Even when we’re not facing an active outbreak, investments in pandemic prevention will 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 so much better.