As states ease COVID restrictions, more and more people post their vaccine selfies and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates its mask guidance. It’s beginning to feel like the country is getting back to normal and, in many ways, we are. But the truth is that what we do now in this moment will determine whether we’ve learned the right lessons from the last year of a pandemic that’s cost the world more than 3 million lives.
Last month, an independent review panel of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic ordered by the World Health Organization called it a preventable disaster, the result of “a myriad failures, gaps and delays in preparedness and response.” It was the 21st century’s “Chernobyl moment,” members said.
Today, the question in front of us is not if, but when, it will happen again — and whether we have the political will to arm ourselves now against equally or more devastating viral threats that are lurking on the horizon.
The world will face other diseases with pandemic potential as viruses coming from birds, bats, and other sources transfer to humans. We must prepare before these next outbreaks occur.
Last year, the world simply wasn’t ready, and what was needed the most was not yet available. Had we equipped our researchers and medical experts with antibodies that blocked all coronaviruses, tested them for safety in Phase I clinical trials, and stockpiled these doses before the outbreak, we could have deployed them immediately to health care workers and also saved millions of lives and trillions of dollars.
Over the last year, our capacity to fight back against these deadly viruses has massively improved. Scientists know which types of viruses are the most likely sources of future pandemics. They include respiratory viruses like influenza and coronaviruses, mosquito-borne viruses like Zika and chikungunya, and bat-borne organisms like Nipah and Ebola. Despite incredible scientific and medical advances, as the potential for diseases to spread increases, so does the risk of outbreaks that escalate into epidemics and pandemics.
And we now have the technology to create safe and effective antibodies for viruses that we know infect humans, as well as for new viruses from virus families found in birds, other animals and the environment (but not yet in humans). Stockpiling a portfolio of antibodies to address these known viral threats will enable us to disrupt the spread of disease during spillover events and quickly pivot to outbreak containment and scaled therapeutics production, saving precious time and lives.
How do we accomplish this?
One effort now underway involves national and global experts who have joined forces to create a public-private partnership to integrate academic, industry, government and community stakeholders in the AHEAD100 initiative (Advanced Human Epidemic Antibody Defenses 100). This program, headed by James Crowe, director of the Vanderbilt University Vaccine Center, will deliver an antibody defense shield to protect our society by developing and stockpiling a portfolio of human monoclonal antibodies for the 100 viruses most likely to cause future outbreaks. With a stockpile of antibodies already on hand, the response to an outbreak could be reduced to only a matter of days.
But it won’t be free. Developing antibodies through Phase 1 clinical trials and manufacturing needed stockpiles will cost $25-30 million per virus, for a total of $2.5-3 billion for the top 100 viruses — a fraction of the more than $10 trillion experts say COVID-19 has cost the global economy.
We must now muster the same collective ingenuity and strength demonstrated in this pandemic to proactively strengthen our health defenses for the likelihood of future ones. In her recent speech to the United Nations, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to this very issue, challenging nations saying, “at the same time that the world works to get through this pandemic, we also know that we must prepare for the next.” Further, she added that, “we have been reminded that the status quo is not nearly good enough, and that innovation is indeed the path forward.”
In the spirit of “Building Back Better,” we can chart the course to the most significant scientific momentum since the race to the moon by investing in an offensive play against our biological adversaries so that the next time we’re faced with a pandemic, we’ll be ahead, and we’ll be ready.
Matt Erskine (email@example.com) is chief strategy officer of Connected DMV, a regional nonprofit working to solve complex problems throughout Greater Washington. He previously served as acting assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Obama administration.