Almost two years on, the evolving COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge us all as citizens, researchers, health care workers, first responders, communicators, and policy makers. The devastation it has caused to populations, health systems and economies has, unfortunately, demonstrated the sheer impact that a single infectious disease can have across the world.
With so many recent developments relating to restrictions, booster vaccinations and new variants, it is no surprise that COVID-19 remains at the forefront of our minds this holiday season. Incidentally, just two days later, the United Nations International Day of Epidemic Preparedness will take place on the 27th of December.
This International Day aims to highlight that in the absence of international attention, future epidemics could surpass the wide-ranging destructions endured during the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak. If we do not learn from this health emergency and fail to prioritise epidemic and pandemic preparedness within our local, national, regional and global governing bodies, we run the risk of encountering more grave consequences in future incidents.
We mark this year’s International Day of Epidemic Preparedness just weeks after the publication of the Global Health Security Index, a measure of preparedness for various health emergencies, put together by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Economist Impact and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Scoring 195 countries according to six pillars of health security – prevention, detection, response, health, norms and risk – the Index found that, quite alarmingly, no country in the world currently has all of the capacities required to respond to future health emergencies. While countries certainly scored well in some aspects of the Index, they left much to be desired in others – and any gap in such an important field could have crippling consequences for a community, nation, or indeed the world.
It is imperative that we resolve those vulnerabilities, using COVID-19 as our case study. Co-creator of the Oxford Astra-Zeneca vaccine, Dr. Sarah Gilbert summed up the gravity of learning from our current situation when she said, “The truth is, the next [pandemic] could be worse. It could be more contagious, or more lethal, or both. We cannot allow a situation where we have gone through, all that we have gone through, and then find that the enormous economic losses we have sustained mean that there is still no funding for pandemic preparedness. The advances we have made and the knowledge we have gained must not be lost.” Despite the many losses experienced around the world at the hands of COVID-19, by applying, developing and democratising the models, tools and approaches used throughout the past 24 months, we could greatly curb and prevent those losses from happening again.
Speaking at the 2020 Nelson Mandela Lecture, Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations said: “COVID-19 is a human tragedy. But it has also created a generational opportunity. An opportunity to build back a more equal and sustainable world.” Although plans for the PANDEM-2 project were conceived months prior to the discovery of the first case of coronavirus, I believe that the tools and resources being created by our consortium support that view of COVID-19 as an opportunity that cannot be ignored – it is an urgent call to prepare. In real time, we have the chance to apply the new lessons being learned day by day, through the invaluable perspectives of the researchers and first responders across Europe.
It is our aim that in years to come, the knowledgebase, resources and tools produced by PANDEM-2 will enable European nations to respond to pandemics, epidemics, and health emergencies with the assurance that they are following best practice, as set by our experts.