Where can philanthropy contribute in pandemic preparedness to prevent the devastating effects of another global pandemic?
BY THERESA CUA
APC had the interesting opportunity to invite “The Batman”, as well as two “Supermen” at a recent roundtable dialogue with APC members—that is to say, eminent guests Professor Wang Linfa (Duke-NUS School of Medicine), renowned for his research into bat-borne diseases; Professor Sir Peter Horby (Pandemic Sciences Institute, University of Oxford), credited for leading the biggest global clinical trials for the COVID-19 treatments we benefit from today; and Professor Gavin Screaton, who heads the School of Medicine at the University of Oxford—to share their lessons learned from the global response to COVID-19. Though not quite the superheroes from the silver screen, their incredible contributions can be likened to the same line of work—that of saving countless lives!
During the pandemic, Prof Screaton shared, scientists across the world “broke the mould” by coming together in a massive global collaboration—sharing data, knowledge, and resources, uncommon as scientists tend to focus on their own research. The results achieved by such a collaboration were tremendous: the world saw the development of viable COVID-19 vaccines and other interventions in record time. This just proves that things could in fact be done differently and quickly, if we all agreed to work together.
Today, the social and economic costs of COVID-19 continue to mount. A quick tally so far: 6.51 million deaths and 606 million infections worldwide, an expected $8.5 trillion economic loss globally, an estimated 130 million people pushed into poverty over the next ten years, and an overall reversal of progress made on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, just to name a few. Given the massive costs from one pandemic, what can be done to make sure that COVID-19 remains the last time the world is brought to its knees?
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that long-term pandemic preparedness is needed to ensure an efficient and rapid response when (not if) the next pandemic comes.
Pandemic preparedness consists of three main levels, Prof Wang shared. Prediction, or determining which viruses in wildlife will make the jump to human infection; Early detection, identification, and containment, where early cases are identified and quarantined to prevent further spread; and finally, Mitigation and Countermeasures, where treatment, vaccines, and social directions such as masking are developed to combat the virus. But for all this to happen, investments into data, talent, and public trust are needed.
However, Interest in pandemic preparedness wanes in “pandemic peacetime”, as cases become less acute and out of the public eye; and leads eventually to diversion of resources to issues deemed more important. This is likely because pandemic preparedness is viewed in the same lens as that of buying insurance, Prof Wang shared, great to have when trouble hits, but considered a waste of resources when things go well. He suggested that governments could view pandemic preparedness with the same lens as that of military preparedness—every nation prepares for war, but fervently hopes it never comes to pass.
Where can philanthropy support when it comes to pandemic preparedness? Prof Horby noted that individual interests vary, and philanthropists should first identify the different aspects of pandemics they are interest to address—as like many other issues, pandemics are complex, multi-faceted, and require interventions in different areas.
Some areas philanthropists could look into include (1) supporting knowledge hubs like Oxford University’s Pandemic Sciences Institute, a global interdisciplinary hub to counter future pandemic threats by developing diagnostics and treatment; (2) building the next generation of scientific talent by investing in scholarships, knowledge exchange, and training; (3) supporting access to hygiene and healthcare for marginalised groups, and (4) organising information and advocacy campaigns for communities, such as public education campaigns on vaccines, to name but a few. The next great pandemic is right around the corner—all three experts agreed in its inevitability. And hopefully, COVID-19 will serve as a big wake-up call to ensure that the world will be fully prepared to respond quickly, efficiently, and effectively when the next pandemic strikes.