While the COVID-19 pandemic was a global wake-up call for many, life sciences stakeholders argue that not enough is being done to address the rising threats of further health crises and equate health security with national security, a necessity that requires consistent public funding. In addition, as a recent panel discussion at the FT US Biotech and Pharma Summit demonstrated, they see the need to increase data-sharing efforts and reinforced global cooperation.
We just consistently go through the cycle of crisis to complacency and fail to invest in a manner that is commensurate with the level of threats we face
Julie Gerberding, CEO, National Institutes of Health
The FT US Biotech and Pharma Summit panel “National Health Security – Addressing rising threats” brought together Sanofi’s head of US general medicines, Olivier Bogillot; the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health’s CEO, Julie Gerberding; the CEO of health intelligence firm Airfinity, Rasmus Bech Hansen, and Kevin Outterson, executive director and principal investigator at the antibiotic resistant bacteria biopharmaceutical accelerator, CARB-X, to discuss emerging health threats.
COVID-19: What We Did Wrong and Right
I think the pandemic showed everyone that we have to invest in health
Olivier Bogillot, Head of US General Medicines, Sanofi
Despite ample warning from previous health crises like the Ebola outbreak, according to Gerberding, no one was completely prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. “We just consistently go through the cycle of crisis to complacency and fail to invest in a manner that is commensurate with the level of threats we face,” she said.
Many had done their science homework, Outterson argued, which he claims was the one element that had prepared society for the pandemic. However, steps have not been taken to otherwise prepare us for other looming crises, such as antimicrobial resistance. “What worries me is that that lesson isn’t being applied today. We haven’t moved it into action by investing in other things for which the alarm bells are going red,” he claimed.
Bogillot stressed the fact that the pandemic demonstrated the need to further invest before another crisis occurs. “I think the pandemic showed everyone that we have to invest in health. Between pandemics you need innovation, you need to treat patients, you need to prevent disease and you need to invest in your healthcare system.” The Sanofi boss also pointed out that pandemics and health threats are now global phenomena. “You cannot protect your own country or continent. It requires coordination between countries, between agencies and governments.”
Hansen pointed out the differences between countries and the need to cull the right calls from different parts of the world. “One thing we can do is look at these different countries and take the best of what they learned to build a much better system going forward.”
This would require coordination, something Gerberding felt was sorely lacking on a national and global level during the pandemic.
A Shift to Preparedness and Prevention
The fire equipment in this room is paid for when it’s installed, not when there’s a fire, but that is not the way we are paying for medical countermeasures like antibiotics
Kevin Outterson, Executive Director and Principal Investigator, CARB-X
Panellists identified the need for a change in mindset among governments with respect to preparedness for future health crises, equating health security with national security. “This is an issue of national security and it needs to be approach in the same way we approach other dimensions of our national security,” Gerberding argued. “But the government does the contracting and we need to create a government market for countermeasure development for these “what if” scenarios so that we have the security and the stockpile to be able to blast into phase III studies or whatever is necessary to get an emergency use authorisation, but we are timid about making that kind of commitment,” she contended.
“The fire equipment in this room is paid for when it’s installed, not when there’s a fire, but that is not the way we are paying for medical countermeasures like antibiotics,” Outterson agreed.
Bogillot weighed in on this approach, maintaining that budget consistency over time is vital. “If you don’t have consistency in the way you secure the resources to make sure you are ready you may face what happened during COVID. We were prepared to some extent and we did a lot of preparation over the years, but when the pandemic hit Europe, we had no masks, no syringes, no anaesthesia.”
This viewpoint was backed up by Outterson. “I agree that governments making decisions every year about whether to contribute to this is insanity.”.
A coordinated approach to data sharing was another area panellists agreed on. “What was amazing during the pandemic was that we shared a lot of information at the global level,” Bogillot affirmed. “Information was flying and we were able to adjust, people were discussing with agencies and between themselves and at the same time we had a lot of data generated by hospitals and countries. It was absolutely critical to share information and to go as quickly as possible.”
Nevertheless, data collection was by no means consistent. “Surveillance was critical both from an innovation perspective but also in terms of understanding how the virus was evolving and the new viral strains that would pose a huge threat and again we saw a huge difference in the level of surveillance in different countries,” Hansen stated. “Data sharing is in everyone’s interest, but we still have a quite siloed system.”
For Gerberding the United States’ de-centralised healthcare system adds a layer of difficulty to data sharing. “The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC), or the federal government has no real authority to require states to contribute surveillance information. Each state can develop its own case definition; they don’t have to harmonize with the national definition.” Moreover, there are underlying infrastructure deficiencies. “The infrastructure that underpins data transfer is archaic and hasn’t been properly invested in in a few decades and the whole system needs to be overhauled,” she claimed.
When asked about international cooperation efforts, some were hopeful about the agencies being put in place that make an effort to sit between health and security. “There are health security agencies being set up in many countries, like in the UK and the EU,” Hansen said.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has begun negotiations on a global accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. In Gerberding’s view, the only way for the agreement to be successful is to look for common ground. “I think one of the really important things we have been looking at is what can everyone agree on. For example, we all agree that having clinical trial networks that are globally connected is an asset that was rapidly built during the pandemic.”