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Experts say developing consistent messaging is one of the things we need to do before the next pandemic. alvarez/Getty Images
  • Experts say there are things we can start doing now to prepare for the next pandemic after COVID-19.
  • Among the items are vaccine research, strengthening our healthcare system, and ramping up on medical supplies.
  • They add that developing consistent messaging to avoid confusion is also important.

Experts say we got lucky when it comes to the vaccines for COVID-19.

Lucky in the sense that a handful of scientists at the National Institutes of Health had been studying the coronavirus for a decade. It was how they were able to come up with a vaccine formula so quickly.

One of those scientists, Dr. Barney S. Graham, deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), was warning his colleague of the need to start working on a vaccine for the next pandemic.

That was in 2017 — more than 2 years before COVID-19 began its worldwide circulation.

Graham wrote about what was then a theoretical approach in 2018. He predicted the research might be able to identify antibodies that block the viruses, even before they caused epidemics.

Now, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the NIAID, said it’s time to put that idea into practice.

Fauci told the New York Times he’s proposing a project that would develop prototype vaccines for 20 families of viruses, any one of which could spark the next pandemic. It would cost billions of dollars, require lots of scientists, and it might take 5 years to get the first prototypes.

Dr. Mark J. Mulligan, director of the New York University Langone Vaccine Center and director of the division of infectious diseases and immunology at the NYU School of Medicine, said he’s “very supportive” of Fauci’s proposal.

“We’ve always lagged a little in creating vaccines in response to repeated outbreaks in the last 10 to 15 years. One of the lessons is that we have to be more efficient, more nimble,” he told Healthline.

Mulligan said the talent is there with young scientists who are able to do the research. He added it would be money well spent.

“With the known benefit of vaccines, it is a tremendous investment to spend a few billion dollars to create a platform for each of the likely threats,” he said.

“We may not get the exact strain, but at least we’ll have something in place. Then we can tweak it as needed to fine tune it to fit the exact strain,” Mulligan explained.

Besides vaccines, officials in the Biden administration have laid out other areas that need work before the next pandemic.

In an address to the United Nations in April, Vice President Kamala Harris outlined their domestic and global goals:

  • A strong healthcare system that everyone can access.
  • A workforce that can detect and stop unexpected threats.
  • Surge capacity, so every country can access personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines, and tests.
  • A system to produce more supplies and distribute them around the world.

Experts say there’s plenty to add to this pre-pandemic to-do list.

“We did not have the public health infrastructure to respond to something of this magnitude,” said Angela G. Clendenin, PhD, an instructional assistant professor in epidemiology and biostatistics at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, as well as an expert in emergency preparedness and management.

“That means laboratories, research, boots on the ground, and people to handle the response. We were fairly understaffed and underfunded,” she told Healthline.

Clendenin pointed to how at the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only allowed COVID-19 testing at a handful of labs.

“We can’t fight what we can’t find. So, we need continued ongoing investment in our laboratory capacity to include surveillance,” she said.

Clendenin also said that next time we need a tracking system to make sure there’s enough usable medical equipment and PPE on hand. And more supplies need to be manufactured in the United States.

“Things like ventilators, that was the first inkling that we had an issue with our stockpile. We were running out and the ones in the stockpile were so out of date that they couldn’t even find parts for the ones that didn’t work,” she said.

Another area that needs work is communication.

Clendenin said officials needed to be more clear that the science was changing rapidly, and their guidance would change along with it.

However, the constant changing instructions left some people confused. In the lack of consistent messaging, they often filled the void with misinformation.

“If everybody had taken a moment instead of arguing about masks and arguing about vaccines, if everyone had done what they should to take care of their neighbors, their family, and their friends, that would be the way we could get out of this,” she said.

Ultimately, Clendenin said, preparedness starts at home. Keeping at least a week’s worth of nonperishable food and drinkable water in your house could eliminate panic-buying and hoarding.

Clendenin added that people have to look out for someone other than themselves when it comes to following the scientific guidance.

“The federal government has no panacea, no magic pill, no magic wand, and the states don’t have it either,” she said. “The people that have the power to get us on the other side of this are the individuals.”