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Will the pandemic give us a Sputnik moment?

September 23, 2020, 2:30 PM UTC

The global pandemic has certainly been costly, claiming nearly a million lives and untold sums in lost economic activity since the outbreak emerged in Wuhan, China, late last year. How can we do it better next time?

Experts, speaking at a Fortune virtual event on Tuesday afternoon, weighed what will be required—from basic readiness to radical innovation to global collaboration—and what can be gained from the current moment.

“We never should have had this pandemic,” said Paul Stoffels, chief scientific officer at Johnson & Johnson. “We could have done so much more. And that’s what the future should bring. Everyone is ready to fight wars, but nobody is ready to fight wars with biology. But I think we’re ready to do this: The science is there; the capabilities are there. Let’s get ready to make this the next wave of innovation.”

Regina Dugan, the CEO of Wellcome Leap and a former director of DARPA, agreed with that assessment. “It feels very much to me like a Sputnik moment—almost as if the 1918 pandemic and the ’29 crash happened on top of each other.” She added: “It’s not coincidental that new waves of transformation happen and grow out of these very difficult situations. It’s my sense that just as we had a new commitment to innovation after Sputnik, this coronavirus could spark, not a space age, but a health age. And that’s going to require a lot of us. But it is certainly within our capacity to get it done.”

One area where she imagined radical innovation is in the way clinical trials are conducted. Rather than running expensive, time-consuming vaccine or drug studies with tens of thousands of human volunteers, she suggested we could use tissue and organ engineering strategies.

“We could accelerate the process without risking safety,” she said. “This is important, not only for the lives that will be saved, but also for economic damage. If we saved one month in the clinical trial, that’s $300 billion worth of economic damage avoided.” She also noted that such a strategy could address equity and representation issues that clinical trials investigators struggle with, as you’d be able to study the vaccine on all population types.

Trevor Bedford, associate professor at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, made the case for better infectious disease surveillance systems. “If you can catch a cluster very early on before it gets to hundreds of thousands of people, you can quench that outbreak.” He also noted that legacy data systems that don’t easily communicate with each other as well as misguided regulatory policy had slowed the U.S.’s COVID response and could be vastly improved on.

Stoffels, a pharma veteran who has been on the front lines of many outbreaks, from HIV to Ebola to Zika, stressed one last point from his years in the field. “The attention of the world is only there when it when it threatens Western countries,” he said, noting that J&J had to stop its work on a once urgently needed Zika vaccine because there was zero interest in it. “Zika can come back anytime…The seeds of many of these viruses are in parts of the world [that get] no attention. They could start growing and expanding, and before we know, it’s a global problem. We have to be global citizens, having the conscience but also the insights and the commitment to not just work when it reaches the U.S. shores, but also work long before that.”

Dugan concurred: “We need to recognize that there is a certain class of problems…We’re just not going to solve them inside national borders. We need new strategies, new organizations, new collaborations, and we need the commitment of our leaders to facilitate those kinds of interactions. We’re going to have to solve those problems together.”