Healthcare systems around the world should prepare for future pandemics with an “always on” approach to response readiness, said one expert.
Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, told the inaugural Rhodes Policy Summit that starting from scratch would be very difficult and that a continuous system was needed.
He explained that having not experienced a pandemic in recent history, when Covid-19 hit, there was a lack of existing expertise on how to overcome it.
Sir John, a leading immunologist and member of the government’s vaccine task force and chairman of the Rhodes Trustees, told the summit: ‘We needed to develop tests, genomics, vaccines, medicines and everything from scratch.
“I think it’s given us really good evidence that starting and stopping these things is not a great way to do it.
“You really want to have things that work continuously in a healthcare system without a pandemic, so that when a pandemic comes, you can pivot to those capabilities.
“And that includes pathogen identification, always-on manufacturing capability, distribution capabilities as we’ve seen globally for vaccines, and a clinical research capability.”
He added: “I think ‘always on’ is just one concept in the whole pandemic preparedness agenda.
“But it’s terribly important because I think if we don’t have a system, a health system in all countries – both in the global north and in the global south – that it’s resilient enough, that you run it all the time, and you can then move around and rotate quickly in a pandemic scenario, we will see the same problems we had with the Covid pandemic.
The Rhodes Trust is an educational charity based at the University of Oxford.
Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair also spoke at the event ‘Building a Positive Legacy from the Pandemic’.
He said: “The world has survived Covid-19 but at a huge cost.
“Predictions of future pandemics range from possible to probable, but no one rates the risk as negligible.
“Because of the possibility that such a future pandemic could involve a virus more deadly than Covid-19, it is recognized that we should ensure the ability, globally, to act much more quickly and effectively than we did for Covid. “
But he added that with concerns like the cost-of-living crisis, the war in Ukraine, energy prices and climate change, while the reasons for action are strong, political leaders in democratic systems are addressing the public question about other issues.
Sir Tony said: “A year ago, talking to them about pandemic preparedness was a relevant conversation, generating quite a bit of interest.
“Today, quite frankly, not so much. And that’s a big problem.”
However, he added that the Covid pandemic “heralded significant, perhaps revolutionary, advances in medical science,” and we need to build on that.
Sir Tony, executive chairman of the Institute for Global Change, said: “We stand at the frontier of a rich and diverse new field of medical science, potentially revolutionizing global healthcare by saving lives and trillions of dollars in lost manufacturing, aside from the impact on tight public budgets.
“Accessing this potential requires a concerted international effort to change our health systems from preparing for the next crisis, whose coming is uncertain and whose effects are unknown, to an ‘always-on’ network of globally enhanced capabilities that it can both spring into action immediately should a new pandemic catch us, but that in either case can mobilize these changes in medical science to treat and prevent disease in the here and now.