As we continue to fight the current covid pandemic caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s not too early to begin thinking about the next pandemic. I’ve been mulling this over for a while, and I was prompted to write this post by a twitter thread from Michael Baym.
Michael wrote about some work that he and Kaylee Mueller started, early in the pandemic, to develop a rapid colorimetric assay for covid. They decided to curtail their work, however, when the personal risk of continuing to work in the lab seemed too great. But Michael is now wisely looking ahead, thinking about what science can do to respond even more quickly to the next pandemic.
Last February, as most of the world was just waking up to the threat posed by covid, I wrote a post with words of wisdom for pandemic preparedness. The words were written by a former Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services, Michael O. Leavitt, in 2007, who at that time was especially concerned about the potential for an influenza pandemic. He said: “Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate. This is the dilemma we face, but it should not stop us from doing what we can to prepare.”
So congratulations, and thanks, to Michael and all the others who are looking ahead. But really, all of us need to look and think ahead, using our hearts as well as our minds.
Almost exactly a year ago, I was very worried about how hard this country would be hit by the pandemic. I wrote: “I think it is entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Europe will get hit harder by the coronavirus than China has been hit, and the US may get hit even harder than Europe.”
I suggested that a number of epidemiological and sociopolitical issues would contribute to the United States being especially hard hit by the pandemic. Among the former, “China’s outbreak started from a single point source in Wuhan … The US, meanwhile, has gotten many independent seeds both from China and from Europe … hundreds or even thousands of smoldering embers at first, most growing unseen and uncontained …” Among the latter, “here in the US, we have deep social divisions, widespread skepticism of expertise (often fed by those divisions), an extremely complex political landscape with federal, state, & municipal layers of government … and many independent-minded people who are inclined to disregard advice and instructions—a wonderful attitude some of the time, but an exceptionally dangerous attitude during a pandemic.”
My worries about the next pandemic have been leaning to the problems of social division and disregard for evidence. As terrible as this pandemic has been, the next one could be worse … even much worse. How will people react if the next pandemic is 10 times more deadly than covid? What if the next outbreak causes disproportionate mortality in kids or young adults? Would the (mostly) right-wing denialists still refuse masks? Would anti-vaxxers (on the left & right) still oppose vaccination?
So, Michael Baym is right to be thinking ahead, as was Michael O. Leavitt. As a nation, we need to commit resources to support science (including the basic sciences that lead to breakthroughs in medicine) as well as our often neglected public-health system. But we also need to find ways to come together as people, to overcome the sometimes willful ignorance, and to discuss things in a meaningful, non-conspiratorial way.
Science and public-health workers can only do so much. The rest is up to all of us to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities from covid … and from the next pandemic … and from ourselves.