Is COVID-19 Our Apollo 13? The Good That Could Come From a Bad Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has stunned the world and has led to a cascade of worldwide health and economic issues that could last for a generation. However, health and structural advances made as a result of the pandemic could last for even longer. Here are some good things that could come out of the pandemic.

Government Readiness. Local, state and national governments are on notice to be more prepared and to work more closely with public health authorities in the future. Chances are, they’ll be working faster to stop the next pandemic, even if it looks a little different. And chances are, the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile will stay replenished for some time after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Deficits in the stockpile, which is there to supplement state and local medical supplies and personal protective equipment during health emergencies, led to a mad scramble nationwide to get supplies to fight COVID-19.

Slow reactions at the beginning of the pandemic followed by overreactions as the caseload grew worldwide led to a series of missteps from governments and even the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, both government and health organizations should be a lot closer to having a plan in future outbreaks. Some scientists and politicians argue that working quickly at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic could have saved lives worldwide. Hindsight is 20/20 in this case, but now it more likely that U.S. and other governments will have systems in place to stop a new virus more quickly.

Dare we hope that the next pandemic will be handled with fewer lockdowns and local tyrants and more attention to a nationwide plan? Let’s hope the scientists who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration will prevail. In any case, the U.S. government is likelier to be ready to handle future challenges with food production and to handle safety and economic costs in a public health emergency the next time around.

Testing Gains. This goes for testing as well. While the U.S. had efficient and large-scale testing machines in many labs, they didn’t have enough testing equipment. Bottlenecks in supply of proprietary testing materials added to the chaos. Now, many new types of ever-cheaper tests have been approved or are in development, and many different groups have found ways to test without proprietary equipment or a specialized testing lab. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is about to get first-hand practice on how to produce, store and deliver millions of doses of vaccine.

Finding Pathogens Faster. Screening tools like improved lung scans and better approaches to blood samples could help in future outbreaks. One new idea is to design equipment to notice unusual features in chest scans that could signal a virally caused respiratory illness. Scientists now are focused on developing better, faster diagnostic tests.

Accelerated Drug and Vaccine Development. To stop COVID-19, vaccines and drugs are being developed and approved at ever-faster rates. This accelerated development is likely to continue with other diseases and is likely to be used to treat old conditions for which treatment options have stalled out.

Vaccines are likely to be ready faster after the pandemic ends. The new technologies scientists are using to create COVID-19 vaccines can be used for vaccines against other diseases, without the need to reinvent the wheel. This has already happened: scientists used their knowledge of antibody-based drugs, gained while trying to stop Ebola, to develop new treatments for COVID-19.

Also, scientists are now studying what viruses in certain virus families have in common, to see if more-universal vaccines or therapeutics can be created. Dr. Fauci claims that’s “not out of the realm” of possibility.

Medical Knowledge Sharing. Worldwide sharing of medical information through quick peer-review and publication of scientific articles and by sharing on preprint servers like bioRXIV and medRXIV should speed up development of future treatments.

Better Handling of Zoonotic Illnesses. Scientists seem to have become more interested stopping zoonotic (animal-passed) pathogens than before, through better farming practices and control of markets where animals are sold.  The U.S. NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) is working with nations worldwide to research the causes and behaviors that contribute to animal-borne viruses. The U.S. Agency for International Development has offered funds to wildlife and human disease experts to work on issues related to animal-borne viruses. Likewise, the Global Virome Project is working to sequence every animal virus that could infect humans. While the project is expected to cost $3.7 billion, that’s pennies compared to the quantitative easing and federal funds the government has plowed into taking care of the problems associated with the new coronavirus. An estimated 631,000 to 827,000 viruses are thought to be able to infect humans.

Finding Hotspots Faster. During the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists and communities have developed new techniques for figuring out where the virus might get worse next, like testing local sewers for evidence of antibodies to the virus. Several groups have also created cheap antibody tests for use in large groups, such as workplaces and school. The techniques that are most useful could be used to stop future pandemics. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and immunologist at Harvard University, says it might be possible now to scan blood samples worldwide on a regular basis to track what diseases are becoming more prevalent in an area before an outbreak accelerates.  An infectious-disease forecasting method could help public-health officials figure out when and how to respond, according to Caitlin Rivers of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Disclaimer: This article does not provide medical advice. Do not take action based solely on this article and always consult with an appropriate healthcare professional. This article is purely for informational purposes.

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