The Next Pandemic Is Coming Sooner Than You Think

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COVID-19 is said to be "once in a century" - but the next pandemic is likely to occur earlier than you think.
We are likely to see further pandemics in the coming decades. We can predict this with reasonable certainty as the incidence of severe epidemics (such as SARS and Ebola) has increased recently and man-made social and environmental changes may have contributed to COVID-19.
A COVID-19 pandemic had long been predicted, but scientists' warnings were ignored. Now that we have the full attention of politicians and other key decision-makers, we need to start rethinking our approaches to preparing for the future internationally and within our own nations. This includes countries like New Zealand, where - although active COVID-19 cases dropped to zero in June 2020 - major challenges remain.
We cannot say that we have not been warned
Less than five years ago, I was one of around 100 global experts who were invited to a World Health Organization (WHO) meeting in Geneva that was triggered by the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Then as now, WHO was criticized for its response to the outbreak. The meeting in December 2015 should improve international cooperation and preparation for future epidemics and other infection risks.
The very last presentation came from Dr. David Nabarro, then the United Nations Special Representative for Ebola (and now a Special Representative for COVID-19).
After the Ebola outbreak, politicians focused more than ever on public health. Nabarro asked us to show more leadership and arouse this interest before political and public attention continued. He emphasized the importance of trust, respect, transparent communication and working with nature.
Five years later, however, we are still talking about insufficient funding for pandemic preparedness. Delays in adopting preventive measures; insufficient capacity development in health systems, laboratories and supply chain logistics; and reduced expertise in infectious diseases.
However, there are signs that some lessons have been learned. For example, the countries most affected by SARS (such as Taiwan and Singapore) tend to respond faster and more resolutely to COVID-19 than other countries.
The vaccine developers are already prepared and ready. You have made tremendous progress. Several COVID-19 vaccine candidates are already in clinical trials. The volume and pace of the exchange of scientific information on COVID-19 was unprecedented.
We also saw a series of quick reports asking us to learn from this pandemic and past epidemics in order to protect ourselves from future events, particularly through a holistic “one health” approach. This brings together expertise from the areas of human health, animal health and the environment.
For example, last month the Lancet One Health Commission called for more transdisciplinary collaboration to address complex health challenges. Similarly, the World Wide Fund for Nature's March 2020 report on the loss of nature and the rise of pandemics highlighted the likely animal origin of COVID-19 and showed how closely human health is related to animal and environmental health connected is.
What New Zealand can learn from COVID-19
Not only will each country work together more effectively internationally, it will also need its own strategy. So what should we do to protect New Zealand from future infectious disease threats?
Our healthcare system has largely responded well to COVID-19. Our research institutions and universities have made quick and effective efforts to scientifically support the response to public health.
Nevertheless, we can and must do it even better. Our expertise and systems are not always well coordinated - crucial for a coordinated and timely response to challenges such as COVID-19.
We allow scientists to work in silos, despite obviously overlapping interests and skills. Of particular importance for combating infectious diseases is the need to break down artificial barriers between human, animal and environmental health.
This approach is particularly useful in New Zealand. We are an island nation that is susceptible to infectious diseases and is economically dependent on agriculture and the physical environment. We also house an existing indigenous Māori worldview and knowledge system that emphasizes the networking between humans, animals and the environment.
University-led efforts such as One Health Aotearoa have brought together experts and researchers from various disciplines. However, further investments are needed to benefit even better from such collaborations.
We need to strengthen skills in areas such as epidemiology, modeling and outbreak management, and create pandemic plans that are flexible enough to respond to any eventuality. New Zealand has a center of excellence for plant biosecurity - but not for animal biosecurity or infectious diseases.
We also need to better integrate science and research into the health system, a key feature of New Zealand's 2017-2027 health research strategy. This requires a cultural change so that research for the district health authorities is seen as "business as usual" and provides the science needed to inform about policies, willingness and best practices.
It is crucial that we need a new generation of scientists and experts who are system thinkers and can work comfortably with multiple disciplines and across the interface between humans, animals and the environment.
And we need the kind of leadership that Nabarro has asked for: scientifically informed and future-oriented, rather than reactive.
We have seen good scientific leadership at the highest levels of the New Zealand government in response to COVID-19.
We must now see this at all levels of health, research and politics in order to best overcome this pandemic - and be better prepared for our next pandemic.
The conversation
David Murdoch, dean and director of the University of Otago campus
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Image: Reuters
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