Coronavirus: We Need to Start Preparing for the Next Viral Outbreak Now

We may not be able to say with certainty where and when they will occur – or what the causative pathogen will be – but we know that another is always lurking. There are also many reasons to believe that their frequency will increase.

Even as global population growth slows, it continues apace in the world’s most economically and politically fragile regions. Increasing urbanization is leading to the proliferation of large, dense population centers that act like giant petri dishes for infectious diseases. And population aging is increasing the share of people who are more susceptible to infection and disease.

The geographic ranges of some pathogens and important disease carriers like mosquitoes are expanding due to climate change. And humans keep encroaching on animal habitats, increasing the likelihood of cross-species spillovers.

International travel continues to become more common, and globalization ensures that the economic effects of an outbreak anywhere will ripple across distant reaches of humanity.

Preparing for the Worst
Given all of the costs of epidemics – and all the factors favoring their repeated occurrence – stable and large-scale investments in organizations and activities dedicated to outbreak preparedness, prevention, mitigation and response are likely to pay tremendous dividends.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, an alliance to finance and coordinate the development of new vaccines, certainly merits substantial funding, as does development of vaccine platforms generally. Likewise, greater funding for novel antimicrobial treatments and improved diagnostics is desperately needed. Increased pathogen surveillance in both humans and animals is another urgent priority.

Perhaps what is lacking more than funding, though, is a sufficient level of coordination among the many players in the loose network of international and country-level organizations responsible for controlling and responding to infectious disease outbreaks. The fragmented nature of the global health system creates the possibility for considerable research and functional gaps as well as wasteful duplications of effort.

We’ve argued before for the establishment of a global technical council on infectious disease threats to improve collaboration and coordination across organizations, carry out needed research and make high-level, evidence-based recommendations for managing global risks. Such a council would be composed of experts from a wide range of disciplines – including epidemiology, vaccinology, public policy and economics – and could either be affiliated with the WHO or stand alone.

The bottom line is that more and sustained resources are sorely needed to prevent, or at least mitigate, the next outbreak and its impact – whether caused by another coronavirus, a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola, pandemic influenza or a pathogen not yet discovered.

Taking these measures may be expensive, but it will be more costly to sit on our hands. The next outbreak assuredly lies just around the bend.

David E. Bloom is Professor of Economics and Demography, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Daniel Cadarette is Research Assistant, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.