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COVID-19 Won’t Be the Last Pandemic. Here’s What We Can Do to Protect Ourselves

5 minute read

Wolfe is a virologist and the founder of Metabiota, an analytics firm that uses data to monitor epidemic risk.

COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic in our deeply interconnected world, and sadly it won’t be the worst. Two profoundly different possible futures are available to us: one in which we stick our heads in the sand as we have consistently done, and one where humanity takes the hard, necessary steps to protect itself.

In a world where we take the path toward resilience, we will universally eliminate the wild-animal trade, stopping many epidemics from occurring in the first place. Most viral epidemics spill over from wild animals, particularly animals closely related to us, like mammals. Eliminating the wildlife trade will reduce spillovers by breaking the link between wild animals and dense cities with vast human populations.

Such a ban won’t completely eliminate contact with wildlife viruses. But in a resilient future, we will know our enemy better than we do now, thanks to the virologists currently seeking out and studying as many viruses as possible. Virologists estimate that wild animals carry approximately 750,000 viruses with the ability to infect people. This seems like a huge number, but pilot efforts like USAID’s PREDICT program have demonstrated the feasibility of a comprehensive inventory of these viruses. The envisioned Global Virome Project will cost billions of dollars—and will do for epidemics what the Human Genome Project has done for medicine, providing the scientific world with detailed knowledge of the viruses that will cause tomorrow’s pandemics. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations has already raised hundreds of millions of dollars to develop vaccine pipelines for future pandemics, and armed with genetic data from the 750,000 viruses, it would be able to establish viral libraries before novel epidemics emerge—dramatically decreasing the time to develop a new vaccine.

Vaccines help stop epidemics, but so does money. In a resilient future, early cases of an outbreak will trigger the immediate release of funds to control it, by way of sovereign or regional-level epidemic-insurance policies. The global hot spots where epidemics historically have emerged overlap with some of the world’s least developed countries. Today, serious financial limitations can make it hard for leaders in such countries to respond to outbreaks in time. When politicians balk, epidemics ignite. In a resilient future, this won’t happen; instead, dedicated funds will automatically flow into pre-programmed rapid-response efforts.

The modern world depends largely on companies for employment, and they were caught terribly off guard by COVID-19, resulting in unprecedented job loss. In a resilient future, that will change. The private sector already knows how to protect itself from catastrophic events. For a litany of catastrophes, including hurricane, earthquake, cyber, terror and flood, companies have resilience plans and insurance to manage their exposure—but not for epidemics. In a resilient future, companies will have chief epidemic security officers poring over company-specific risk assessments, developing tailored mitigation plans, and obtaining independent epidemic-preparedness certifications. They will also have insurance.

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You may wonder what insurance company would risk offering business coverage for epidemics, particularly after seeing the losses from COVID-19. The world felt similarly after 9/11. Following 9/11, lenders, for example, would no longer agree to finance the construction of high-rises without terrorism insurance, and insurers were ill-equipped to offer such coverage. What resulted in the U.S. was the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, which enables the insurance industry to write policies to protect against terrorism with the assurance that if the losses go beyond a certain level the government will step in. Governments around the world will create similar backstops for pandemic insurance, permitting insurers to adapt to a post-COVID-19 reality. Insurers will learn to take on more and more of the burden, decreasing the cost to taxpayers when the next one hits. Insured companies means fewer layoffs, and in some countries companies may have to guarantee this to participate in the program.

Future solutions will take advantage of technologies that don’t even exist and boggle the mind. Our resilient future, for example, will include digital immunity passports not imaginable a decade ago. If an app can be safe enough to store and use credit-card information, it can do the same for a lab result. Like the yellow immunization cards that people keep with their passports, such apps will certify individuals’ immunity to viruses they have been vaccinated against. They will also be linked to diagnostic test results so that individuals, when recovered and immune, can re-enter the workforce. These systems will give individuals and their communities confidence to return to normal more rapidly, and the data will give health officials real-time susceptibility maps showing what regions need to be quarantined and where to focus vaccination efforts.

It’s hard to be optimistic during one of the greatest crises of modern times. Here’s how: First, imagine this epidemic had occurred 20 years ago, in a world with limited Internet, remote work systems, e-commerce and grocery delivery. A world ill-equipped to detect an outbreak and sequence a virus in days, and scale diagnostics in weeks and vaccines in months. Then imagine that now, with all of these tools, humanity fully realizes the scale of the risks it faces and puts its remarkable capacity to adapt and innovate into protecting itself from future pandemics. That is the only future we can choose. And it can start now if we want it to.

Wolfe is a virologist and the founder of Metabiota, an analytics firm that uses data to monitor epidemic risk

This article is part of a special series on how the coronavirus is changing our lives, with insights and advice from the TIME 100 community. Sign up for access to TIME 100 Talks, our virtual event series, featuring live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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