Covid-19 has taught us how to prepare for future pandemics

Olivia Miller

Although it feels as if Covid-19 has been around for a long time, it is still a very new disease (a little over one year old) of which we know little. Professor Martin Michaelis and Dr Mark Wass of the School of Biosciences explain how Covid-19 has nevertheless taught us already how to prepare for future pandemics. They said:

‘With more than 90 million confirmed cases worldwide and almost 2 million confirmed deaths, Covid-19 is currently causing the most devastating pandemic since the Spanish Flu in 1918-1920. An increasing number of countries have already lost more than 0.1% (more than one in a thousand) of their residents. This includes the UK (0.12%) but also countries such as Belgium (0.18%), Italy (0.13%), Czechia (0.13%), the US (0.12%), Peru (0.12%), Spain (0.11%), and Mexico (0.11%). Since we are not even over the first global peak, these numbers will keep increasing for the foreseeable future.

‘Much about Covid-19 and how it is going to develop further remains uncertain. For example, we do not know how long Covid-19 survivors may be protected from re-infection and how long protection from vaccines may last. We do not know how to determine whether an individual is protected or not. We do not know how many survivors will suffer from ‘long COVID’ and what the full impact of this syndrome will be. We do not know how regularly new variants may emerge and how this may affect our response to Covid-19.

‘However, there is light at the end of the tunnel and reason for optimism, with vaccines being rolled out to protect large parts of society in the not-too-distant future. If new variants emerge, these vaccines can quickly be adapted. And there will be effective drugs at some point.

‘Moreover, a number of countries have shown us how you can live with Covid-19 without the large death tolls many countries have faced. These include Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and China. All these countries have in common that they suppressed the spread of Covid-19 as much as possible right from the beginning. This enabled these countries to contain outbreaks locally, so that they could ease general restrictions. Thus, the residents of these countries have not had to endure the massive constraints and lockdowns that we are familiar with in the UK. Because of this, the economies of these countries have also performed better. Taiwan, a nation of 23.5 million, has only suffered seven deaths and its economy grew last year. This has shown us that protecting lives and protecting the economy are the same thing in a pandemic.

‘The examples of these countries also teach us how to deal with and to prepare for future pandemics, which will inevitably come. There is a continuous threat of new outbreaks of diseases caused by influenza viruses, coronaviruses, Ebolaviruses, and many other viruses and pathogens, some of which we do not even know of yet. However, every pathogen needs to be transmitted from human to human to cause a pandemic. Hence, we need to minimise human-to-human contact temporarily as much as possible, if we want to prevent or at least control future pandemics. If we had had a very strict global lockdown for four to six weeks in December 2019, just when SARS-CoV-2 was discovered, we may have been able to get rid of this disease for good before it had even really started to spread. We missed this window and Covid-19 is now an endemic disease that humans will probably have to live with forever.

‘If we want to prevent future pandemics that are similar to or even worse than Covid-19, we will need strategies that go far beyond previous preparedness plans and that enable us to take strong actions immediately. We will need more international cooperation and more more stringent international surveillance systems that identify outbreaks as early as possible. If there is a concern, we will need to act before the scale of the threat becomes clear. Otherwise, we will miss the short time window, in which new infectious diseases can be eradicated.

‘If swift eradication is not possible, maximum suppression of disease transmission must be the aim. Only low case numbers will enable the long-term control of new diseases without massive death rates and far-reaching general restrictions.

‘Such immediate responses are only possible if there are plans, structures, and resources available that enable them. This means that future pandemic preparedness plans have to include global and local lockdown measures. There must be sufficient stocks of all essential goods, structures that ensure the distribution of essential supplies, and measures that enable the temporary shutdown of all non-essential parts of the economy. Moreover, resources and infrastructure will need to be available that enable the detailed monitoring of disease transmission including mass testing right from the start of novel infectious disease outbreaks that may turn into pandemics.’

Professor Michaelis and Dr Wass run a joint computational/ wet laboratory.  Dr Wass is a computational biologist with expertise in structural biology and big data analysis. Prof Michaelis’ research is focused on the identification and investigation of drugs and their mechanisms of action, with a focus on cancer and viruses. With regard to viruses, Prof Michaelis and Dr Wass work on virus-host cell interactions and antiviral drug targets. In the cancer field, they investigate drug resistance in cancer. In collaboration with Professor Jindrich Cinatl (Goethe-University, Frankfurt am Main), they manage and develop the Resistant Cancer Cell Line (RCCL) Collection, a unique collection of 2,000 cancer cell lines with acquired resistance to anti-cancer drugs. They are also interested in meta-research that investigates research practices in the life sciences.

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