With much of the world caught up in responding to COVID-19, experts and lawmakers are again underscoring the need to prepare for the next pandemic, as distant a concern as it may seem.
Historically, the biopharma industry and public health groups have gone through “boom and bust” funding cycles in response to pandemics, “where we throw resources and money at a problem when the horse is out of the barn,” Sanofi chief scientific officer Gary Nabel said on a BIO Digital panel this week.
To better prepare for future threats, he called for a “global biosecurity network” to anticipate threats and better prepare. The effort could include surveillance, “banks of antibodies” to quickly deploy in response to outbreaks, and “ready-to-go" diagnostic tests.
“Let’s use modern technologies and let’s never be put in this position ever again,” he said.
COVID-19 is the worst pandemic in generations, leaving hundreds of thousands of dead and millions more infected worldwide. But the world has faced six global outbreaks in the last 20 years, including Ebola, Zika and MERS.
None of those grew to the level of deadliness across the world as COVID-19, but that doesn't mean future outbreaks can't.
“I guarantee you if we are lucky enough to get through this relatively unscathed,” there will be other pandemics, Nabel said during the panel. “And there can be worse pandemics.”
Scientific and health communities have been working for years to better prepare for outbreaks and pandemics, including with the 2017 formation of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The group has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to fund research in emerging diseases, and it got involved early in COVID-19 vaccine work.
Nabel isn’t alone in outlining the need for better pandemic preparation. In fact, just this week, Senate health committee Chairman Lamar Alexander called on Congress to “act on needed changes this year in order to better prepare for the next pandemic.” Takeda's CEO Christophe Weber has urged a global shift to be "more proactive than reactive" in pandemic responses. Over the years, other biopharma execs have spoken up on the issue as well.
In a new white paper, Alexander’s office outlined five areas of focus for U.S. pandemic preparations—better R&D for tests, treatments and vaccines, plus surveillance, stockpiling, stronger public health infrastructure and better cooperation within the federal government during a crisis.
Another challenge is manufacturing. The vaccine industry operates “more or less” at capacity, Merck’s vaccine president John Markels said on a BIO panel this week. That poses significant challenges when companies need to scale up for global immunization efforts for billions of people. On that panel, Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said health communities should build new factories to help deal with that capacity shortfall.