The spread and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise, claiming millions of lives in its wake. In its two years and ongoing onslaught, the viral infection has killed more than five million people worldwide. With such drastic numbers of cases and deaths, concerns and discussions surrounding pandemic risks have steadily grown.
Calls are being made to ensure that the world learns from this outbreak and produces better outcomes and responses — making preparations for what’s inevitable. After all, with the current shifts in biological and environmental systems, COVID-19 wouldn’t be the last pandemic this world will see.
Main Risk Factors
Due to the continued destruction of ecological habitats through the practice of deforestation, laboratory experiments, and farmed livelihood, humans and animals are consistently forced to interact in close proximity. As a result, the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans also increases.
A report by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that a majority of pathogens are likely zoonotic — first emerging from animals and then passed on to humans.
The virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic, SARS-CoV-2, likely originated from an interaction between animals and humans.
The world continues to fight against COVID-19. Responding to the underlying circumstances that push humans into the habitats of wild animals — and vice versa — is crucial in preventing the next pandemic.
How to Better Prepare For the Next Pandemic
The devastating outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the need to address gaps in outbreak risk and preparedness on a global scale. In some countries, efforts to end the pandemic have been underwhelming and fragmented, characterized by inaccessibility or hesitation towards vaccines.
And it’s imperative that we don’t repeat these glaring errors. Sooner or later, the next pandemic that will be emerging could be more infectious than SARS-CoV-2, deadlier, or both.
A key takeaway from the global response to this pandemic is this. To quickly lower cases of transmissions, policymakers and various health institutions across the globe need to put effective health systems and have response mechanisms in place. World leaders should prioritize efforts to provide an adequate supply of essential goods and combat anti-science attitudes.
In addition, there is an utmost need to increase manufacturing capacity and distribute vaccine development and production sites in various countries. Diversifying the supply chain for vaccine rollouts helps prevent dependency on one country or supplier. Offering financial and logistical assistance to aid developing countries to secure and produce vaccines on their own will shorten timelines of mass immunization and herd immunity. This will essentially contain the next virus and prevent it from spreading further.
And if there’s one positive thing the pandemic has taught the world, it’s how quickly the clinical development of diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines can escalate and how an impressive amount of research generated in the scientific community can be achieved in such a short period, particularly within the field of mRNA technology.
Made possible by the game-changing possibilities of mRNA technology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that as of February 2022, more than 214 million Americans have been vaccinated against COVID-19. There are worries that we have “rushed” the science. But Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna created vaccines using research and methods that have been in development in labs for many years. The goal has always been to help the body build immunity against diseases.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, decades of research and technology advancement stood prepared for a test while the world desperately waited for a vaccine that’ll fight against SARS-CoV-2, uncovering its viral sequence 10 days after the first reported cases and developing a vaccine against it in less than a year.
COVID-19 won’t be the last disease mRNA technology will be developing vaccines against, either. Researchers are now looking at how they can utilize mRNA in developing vaccines and programs at lower costs and in such short spans. Treatment for cystic fibrosis and genetic diseases. Medicine for heart disease, tuberculosis, and malaria. These are just some of the possibilities that lie ahead of the path of mRNA technology, aside from those already in development (Zika, rabies, flu, and HIV).
Before the pandemic, several types of cancer were the main focus of mRNA treatments. With the success of vaccines against COVID-19, researchers plan to continue exploring and leveraging mRNA technology for cancer. The premise of mRNA being able to prompt the body’s immune system in locating mutated proteins and destroying cancer cells is something to look forward to as the science of mRNA continues to expand and develop.
The Silver Lining to the Pandemic
Preparing for the next pandemic is no easy task and will demand many elements. In developing vaccines, researchers don’t just start jabbing people with experimental vaccines until they’ve conducted rigorous and numerous safety checks.
And science alone can’t take all the responsibility: Social, financial, and political factors also play crucial roles in outbreak preparedness. Adapting logistics in a health system as vast and complex as the U.S. can take months of planning and coordination. And the longer vaccines stay on the shelf, the more lives a viral infection takes.
A sense of worldwide urgency and collective accountability between governments, foundations, and corporations are crucial. Moreover, pouring money into vaccine research and development, building resilient health infrastructures and medical countermeasures, and preparing for economic stresses at the household level can help reduce the toll of the next pandemic.