Disease X: Are We Prepared for the Next Pandemic?

Here’s what we have learned about the current pandemic and how America can better prepare for the next one.

Air Date: March 17, 2021

Moderator: Suzanne P. Clark, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Featured Guests: Dr. Francis Collins, Director, National Institutes of Health, Rafael Mariano Grossi, Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Tara O’Toole, EVP and Senior Fellow, In-Q-Tel

Over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, it shows no signs of disappearing. However, as we’re focusing on the current pandemic, it’s important to not overlook the possibility of another life-altering disease that could emerge. While science and technology continue to evolve with the development of vaccines and treatment options for COVID-19, we must look at what has and has not helped us better prepare for upcoming diseases.

Here are three lessons experts have learned from the current pandemic and how it will help us prepare for a future one.

To Prepare for ‘Disease X,’ the Private and Public Sectors Have to Work Together

Utilizing the private sector to develop technologies against COVID-19 has been crucial, experts said. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director general at the International Atomic Energy Agency, works on a program established in 2020 called Zoonotic Disease Integrated Action (ZODIAC). The program works to prevent pandemics that have a root cause of transmitting viruses and other pathogens from animals to humans.

“I think the American business community can do a lot,” he said. “In this project, we are trying to reach out … to private and business communities all over the world.”

“A lot of the successes in fighting COVID were due to the ingenuity and the very powerful efforts on the part of the private sector,” said Dr. Tara O’Toole, EVP and senior fellow of In-Q-Tel. “I think mistakes were made in some areas in not fusing those two pieces of our world together faster and more efficiently.”

“We need more investment, public investment in infrastructure that could be used by all of the private sector and academia,” Dr. O’Toole continued. “The private sector has to be … more aggressive in pointing out what might be possible and what roles [the] government might have to play in making more innovation come to light.”

“If there was ever a time where we needed to get everybody with scientific capabilities around the same table and work together, this has been it, and that's another lesson that we can carry forward,” added Dr. Francis Collins, director of National Institutes of Health.

We Must Invest in the Future of Biotechnology to Prepare for the Next Pandemic

Experts express their worries about the U.S.’s ability to compete in the global market of future biotechnology. O’Toole stated this ill-preparedness is one of the “biggest threats” the U.S. faces while preparing for the next pandemic.

“I don't think we've woken up yet to how important biology and biotech is going to be economically across multiple industries,” she said. “We have been less forward-thinking and less proactive in translating biological insights into products. Hence we didn't have the mRNA vaccines when COVID started.”

“The technology for these diagnostics has been available for quite some time,” O’Toole added. “It was really market forces and lack of investment in the translation of basic science into workable products … that would really make a difference."

Science Education Is a Crucial Element in the Pandemic Fight

Having a basic understanding of science among the public and government sectors will assist in getting ahead of future pandemics, experts say.

“I think something that would help would be more scientific literacy within the governments so that the politicians … [have] a chance to become confident of [scientists’] judgment on a day-to-day basis,” explained O’Toole. “We just need much more infusion of scientific literacy into the daily dealings of government.”

“We've done a poor job of achieving scientific literacy amongst our population,” added Dr. Collins. “And so I think there is still a genuine lack of appreciation that actually evidence matters … The truth really does exist, and it really does matter.”

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