Though the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, fatigue from the global public health emergency has surged to levels only an omicron subvariant could rival. We’re all eager to move on. But for scientists and public health experts, that means preparing for the next inevitable pandemic and dealing with the aftermath of this one.
Ahead of Ars Frontiers, I connected with virologist Angela Rasmussen to talk about pandemic preparedness—what went well in this pandemic, what didn’t, what we learned—and what lessons we already seem to be ignoring.
Rasmussen brought a lot to the conversation. She’s a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization at the University of Saskatchewan and an affiliate at Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security. She has long studied highly pathogenic emerging viruses—including coronaviruses, Ebola, and influenza viruses—focusing on host responses to those viral infections. Currently, she’s working with the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network, a research network funded by the Canadian government, to surveil and characterize SARS-CoV-2 variants that could spill over and spill back between animals and humans.
We started our discussion with the mammoth questions: What should we do to prepare for the next pandemic—and are we doing those things? Her answer, basically: We need to be thinking globally and long-term. We’re doing some of that now, but we also seem to be falling into a common pattern that could leave us unprepared.
Some things went well in this pandemic, Rasmussen said, highlighting the speedy sharing of genomic sequences that paved the way for the equally speedy development of highly effective vaccines. She also noted the impressive stand-up of genomic surveillance around the world. But on many other fronts of pandemic prevention and response, we failed, she said.
“And one of the biggest reasons that I think we failed is that a lot of the pandemic responses have really been nationalized,” she said. “This is a global problem that is facing all of us, and if we really want to be prepared and more capable of responding to the next one, we need to be looking for global solutions… We need to be focusing on solutions that rely on global cooperation, that rely on surveillance programs that transcend national borders, and that provide a fair and equitable exchange of scientific knowledge and collaboration across borders, particularly in the global south and in low- and middle-income countries that are likely going to be more profoundly affected should an epidemic or pandemic occur.”
The World Health Assembly and the World Health Organization have been raising these points, and scientists are hearing them, she said. But the funding and focus need to be long-term. Invariably, when new threats arose in the past—such as the original SARS outbreak in 2003 or the emergence of the related MERS in 2012—there was an initial burst of funding to research and prepare for outbreaks. But then, when the threat subsided, interest faded, and the funding dried up.
“When those grants came up for renewal, a lot of them were not renewed because that was no longer considered an important investment,” Rasmussen said.