Key Lesson From Past Outbreaks: A Rapid and Collective Response Required

Coronavirus is quickly becoming a household name as the COVID-19 epidemic expands to more countries across the world and the number of confirmed cases multiplies. 

You’ll recall Ebola was a household name six years ago, followed by Zika two years later. Infectious disease epidemics do not respect borders or politics, and the battle against these microbial invasions requires a collective effort by governments, the private sector, philanthropy and the public.

Lessons learned from past epidemics have led to the development of expedited resources to respond to these emergencies. For instance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations is an organization that was created in 2017 at the World Economic Forum as an innovative global partnership between public, private, philanthropic and civil society organizations to swiftly develop vaccines to address emerging health threats. It quickly awarded grants to researchers working on a vaccine now for COVID-19. 

Here in the United States, Congress established the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund in 2018. As Congressman Tom Cole noted in a recent op-ed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can use this funding at a moment’s notice to support doctors and other health workers deployed to fight outbreaks.

Epidemics are predictable only in that we know there will always be another one, but there are continuous lessons to learn and apply to the next outbreak.

In 2009, I served as Indiana’s state health officer and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials during the H1N1 pandemic. I keenly remember the challenge of staff shortages and flexing the public health workforce due to restrictions on federally funded positions at the state and local level. I applaud Congress for establishing the rapid response reserve fund, but we know that government cannot fund or do all that is needed on its own.

During the 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, I was a senior CDC leader. I saw firsthand the dedicated scientists and public health professionals willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public and end the epidemic. I also witnessed their frustration when needed resources were not readily available as they left their families behind to fight against the fast spread of the deadly Ebola virus at the epicenter of the outbreak. 

However, I knew that the philanthropic support given through the CDC Foundation was able to be used quickly when needs were identified by disease fighters. Philanthropies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and philanthropists like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan and Paul Allen set the pace for many others in responding to the CDC Foundation’s call.

The flexible funding provided by these groups and individuals helped support the Ebola vaccine trials in Sierra Leone, build emergency operations centers and laboratories, train staff, buy much needed technology and equipment, provide psychological support and much more. The hard assets paid for by philanthropy were all gifted to the ministries of health and still support the three most-impacted West African countries today. 

Each epidemic is different, and the scientific and public health community must respond to learn what is spreading and causing illnesses. During an epidemic, the most-valued support from philanthropists, corporate social responsibility and individuals is unrestricted donations that allow the scientific experts to quickly deploy resources and put in place interventions where needed most. For the current coronavirus outbreak, a number of organizations, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation among others, are stepping forward to support broader response efforts.

COVID-19 has infected more than 76,936 people in China as of Sunday and has reached more than two dozen countries. We need all hands on deck for the COVID-19 epidemic, and I hope everyone joins in the battle against this formidable threat. A key lesson for virtually every pandemic is that speed saves lives.

My husband always told our children that lessons would be repeated until they are learned. There’s no question that the world will continue to see emerging diseases that cause fear, economic shock, illness, death and social disruption. As a society, we must learn the lesson of prevention and apply the collective resources needed to do whatever we can to prevent epidemics in the first place as well as rapidly respond to those epidemics that will inevitably occur. 


Judy Monroe, M.D., is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation, an independent nonprofit and the sole entity created by Congress to mobilize philanthropic and private-sector resources to support the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s critical health protection work.

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