By Vance Kershner
May 25, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Congress may not be able to prevent the next pandemic, but it does have the power to prevent the next one from once again crippling our nation. COVID-19 stress-tested our public health infrastructure like we have never seen before — and America failed that test. The ailments that officials and private sector leaders warned about for years deteriorated in front of our eyes — decimating our economy, stifling our children’s education and killing more than half a million of our loved ones.
Just as America’s bridges have rusted and fallen apart from years of neglect, so too has our nation’s pandemic response preparedness. When the pandemic hit, we saw dams break, bridges collapse and tire-popping potholes in our testing infrastructure. While this virus exposed a nationwide failure to prepare ourselves, it also clarified the steps we need to take to ensure this does not happen again. Partnering with the private sector, standardizing public health procedures in labs nationwide and maintaining modern technology in our public health labs will prepare America to rise to the occasion when we face the next pandemic.
The federal government and the private sector each have a role to play in fortifying our public health infrastructure. Private-sector competition encourages companies to create new technologies that address the biological threats to our long term and immediate health. The government can use its watchful eye to monitor these threats, invest dollars in technology that will protect our well-being and coordinate response systems that position us to proactively combat the threat. Each entity must work together to safeguard our well-being so we do not repeat the calamitous outcome of the coronavirus.
As newer computers and cloud-based technology have revolutionized the way we store and transmit data, scientific advancements have changed the way we process testing samples. Scientists can create cutting-edge methods, but they are useless without the machines necessary to conduct them and the appropriate software to manage the data.
Right now, the disparity in our public health technology is shocking. Running modern methods on some of these machines is like connecting Bluetooth to a computer with a dialup modem. This proved especially problematic when the coronavirus hit: Labs across the country had to manually intake thousands of test samples, and conduct 2021 methods on 20th-century technology. The result was a backlog of tests, delays in reporting to patients and an unacceptably high false positive rate. When labs were spending days processing a test, patients were unable to take preventative measures to stem further infections, leading to viral spread, community outbreaks and death.
Modern threats to our public health require modern technology as solutions. We need our public health labs to operate as one country, not individual localities.
Along with standardizing modern technology within labs, we need to homogenize our methods. Currently, individual labs operate on islands, with each running its own processes with its own equipment. This posed a major challenge for a nation trying to collectively stand up a massive COVID-19 testing network. Outbreaks rose and subsided within communities. When local labs became overwhelmed, they could not turn to other labs in the state, or across state lines to ease their burden because the technology and methods varied too much. This also slowed testing turnaround times. We need to work together to tackle public health solutions, not operate in silos.
Members of both political parties, working together, have a unique opportunity to bring our public health infrastructure out of the dark ages. Restocking pharmaceuticals, bolstering medical countermeasure manufacturing and firming up supply chains will have a demonstrable impact on our future pandemic preparedness. But we must go further, by modernizing and automating public health lab infrastructure as well. Emerging variants and the potential for a winter surge could endanger our recovery. There is no excuse for being caught off-guard again. Congress must work together to pass public health infrastructure legislation as soon as possible.
Vance Kershner is the CEO of LabWare.
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