The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the cracks in the country’s public health infrastructure, and advocates, including a newly launched institute, say now is the time to invest in shoring up data systems that can help alert officials to emerging outbreaks — and stop them from becoming pandemics.
New Morning Consult polling indicates the issue remains top of mind for the American public: 70 percent of adults are concerned about another pandemic happening in their lifetime, while just 47 percent think the country will be prepared to handle the public health impact of another health crisis of COVID-19’s magnitude.
Yet despite that urgency, public health advocates are warning that policymakers’ attention is drifting. Congressional Democrats’ $1.75 trillion social spending bill includes $10 billion to prepare for future pandemics, for example, short of the $30 billion the White House asked for this spring.
“When this pandemic hit, our public health system was underfunded, our nation was unprepared, and our families paid the price,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in an email.
U.S. adults were asked if they are concerned about another pandemic like COVID-19 happening in their lifetime
In addition to pushing for the public health measures in the Build Back Better package, a committee aide said Murray is preparing to release bipartisan legislation with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to shore up pandemic preparedness. Yet it’s unclear whether Congress will have the appetite to pass even more funding.
Private organizations pushing past public sector on preparedness
Outside groups are not waiting for the federal government to get to work. In late October, the Pandemic Prevention Institute launched with $150 million in funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to harness data in new, sophisticated ways to develop early warning systems that allow regional, national and global organizations to respond more quickly to potential outbreaks and other health threats.
The group, led by Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, will spin off into an independent organization in three to five years, according to Sam Scarpino, its managing director. The ultimate goal, Scarpino said, is for the institute to become a trusted, independent facilitator between public- and private-sector organizations working on public health around the world.
“The goal here is to have sustained funding that ensures that this is around to prevent pandemics moving forward,” Scarpino said. The threat of a global health crisis is “a regular feature and has been for decades, and now is the opportunity where we can invest to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Americans have gotten the memo: In the poll, about half of adults said they think pandemics like COVID-19 won’t become common, but will happen again in their lifetime. Another 30 percent think pandemics will become relatively common, and 19 percent think pandemics will remain uncommon and likely won’t happen again in their lifetime.
Further, just over half of adults said they have at least some trust in the U.S. government’s ability to handle the country’s health care, do the right thing for its citizens and keep people safe in the event of another pandemic.
U.S. adults were asked how prepared they think the country would be to handle the following issues in the event of another pandemic:
Why a data-driven approach on pandemic tracking could be a game-changer
Advocates have said data and collaboration will be key to getting it right next time. PPI plans to use analytic tools and algorithms to combine traditional public health data — like genome sequencing and wastewater surveillance — with private-sector data, which could include tracking people’s purchases of over-the-counter medicines and masks, Scarpino said.
In an effort to ensure privacy, PPI will share “signals” with officials rather than the data itself. Policymakers can then use the analytics to quickly make decisions, and the group hopes its findings will enable local leaders, in particular, to tackle COVID-19, as well as diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and hepatitis.
Local officials who are planning a public event, for example, could use the signals to identify whether they need to require masks, reduce capacity or take other safety measures.
“There’s this layer of decision-makers that are making choices every single day about how to keep themselves safe, their communities, their families,” Scarpino said, and PPI is looking to deliver “tools powered by the data.”
It’s a tall task, and the organization, as well as policymakers, will need to win buy-in at all levels as they look to address future health threats. Morning Consult polling indicates that when it comes to pandemic preparedness here and abroad, the public is generally confident in the ability of the United States and the international community to use what they’ve learned from COVID-19 in the future.
The share of U.S. adults who said the following have learned lessons from COVID-19 that will help them respond to future health threats:
Better global collaboration to prevent pandemics is a must
In the poll, about 2 in 3 adults said they think the international community has learned lessons from the pandemic that will prepare it to better respond to future health threats, while 62 percent said the same about the United States.
Murray, meanwhile, stressed that investments in pandemic preparedness will likely pay off in the event of another global health crisis: “We need to remember that when it comes to public health and preparedness, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Other global leaders are also betting on data. The World Health Organization is standing up a pandemic intelligence hub to allow other groups to model risks using shared data and smooth the flow of information across governments and organizations.
Scarpino argued that while additional support is needed for WHO- and government-led pandemic preparedness programs, a new independent organization will help rebuild that trust among the public.
“We have a moment right now, where the world’s attention is turned on this,” Scarpino said.