If we want the pandemic to end, CEOs need to do what governments won’t—including getting tougher and smarter about vaccines

December 1, 2021, 5:32 PM UTC
A shopper wearing a face mask outside a retailer in London. “Due to the failure of the political system, the private sector must take the lead to ensure a more robust pandemic response so economies can function as much as possible,” the authors write.
Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As the world scrambles to understand the full impact of the Omicron variant, what we do know is that its emergence did not need to happen. Since March 2020, we and others have warned that failure to respond to COVID-19 in a global way increased the likelihood of dangerous resistant variants popping up around the world. An investment of tens of billions of dollars then could have averted the tens of trillions in economic losses Omicron could cause—on top of the tens of trillions COVID-19 has already cost. 

We do not yet know if Omicron will overtake Delta as the dominant virus, or if it is resistant to vaccines. But a vaccine-resistant variant is inevitable in the coming weeks and months. A new vaccine likely could be generated and obtain regulatory approvals in less than six months. However, the underwhelming global coverage of vaccines in the past year—well below 50%—does not inspire confidence. Lockdowns have already resumed; more are coming.

Unless we change our approach now, we seem doomed to repeated cycles of partial vaccine coverage followed by new variants and economic devastation.

Governments will not solve the problem. President Macron of France stepped in early to try to support Africa. The Biden administration has been a global leader. But despite clear recommendations from several independent panels, the G7 and G20 have failed to take significant steps to control COVID-19. It is ironic that the week Omicron was reported, governments were meeting to craft a pandemic treaty. A treaty is important for the future, but it will not end this pandemic now. 

Due to the failure of the political system, the private sector must take the lead to ensure a more robust pandemic response so economies can function as much as possible. The private sector can both take direct action and be the driving force to push governments to step up.

First, the private sector should stand against closing borders. The rush to stop travel from Southern Africa makes little public health sense. The variant has likely already spread around the world. The African Union has put in place strong regional pandemic response plans. Had they received support for the past two years, perhaps the current crisis could have been averted. In addition, if we hope to catch and respond to variants, countries that aggressively look for and rapidly report them should be supported, not punished. Finally, we do not know where Omicron originated: It’s worth keeping in mind that the so-called Spanish flu of 1918 likely emerged in the U.S. 

A global regime of genomic surveillance to identify variants, combined with vaccine mandates for travel, PCR testing within 48 hours of travel, rapid antigen testing before entering the airport or boarding, and strong contact tracing with rapid access to available treatment makes more sense than a travel ban. No doubt travel will be curtailed, but it isn’t necessary or economically wise to shut it down.

Second, the private sector should demand the immediate release of excess vaccines, beyond what is projected to be required for boosters, from high-income countries to lower-income countries and provide resources to support distribution and acceptance. The only way to get ahead of variants is to vaccinate as many people and as quickly as possible. Even if Omicron is mostly resistant to current vaccines, there could be some crossover protection from the immune response they induced that could reduce illness and death. If it is not resistant, we could tamp down future variants that could be.

Third, companies should lead a public campaign to explain why mandatory vaccines, masks, and where possible social distancing are necessary to stabilize economies. Companies should also enforce those practices in the workplace and storefronts around the world—pressuring governments to implement the same approach for all residents in their countries. 

To prepare for cycles of vaccine-resistant variants, the private sector should lead the effort to develop and produce vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments in a geographically dispersed manner that is not dependent on global supply chains. For example, there are technologies available today that could significantly reduce the cost and complexity of mRNA vaccines to provide a rapid response to any variant. In the medium- to long-term, those technologies could enable Africa to not only meet its needs, but potentially become the global supplier of less expensive, high-quality vaccines. 

In addition, biotech and other companies should accelerate the development and manufacture of easy-to-use and affordable products that are a triple threat: for treatment to reduce illness, to kill virus in the nose and mouth to limit spread, and to prevent infection for six months or more. We have taken up that challenge and encourage others to do so.

The Biden administration should lead a global Project Warp Speed to ensure the global development and production of those vaccines, triple threat therapies, and diagnostics.

Somehow COVID-19 did not shock the world into recognizing that a global pandemic demands a global response. Perhaps Omicron will. The private sector should lead the way.

Mark Dybul is CEO of Enochian BioSciences and professor of medicine, Georgetown University Medical Center. He is a former head of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and a former member of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. 

Serhat Gümrükçü is the founder and executive director of Seraph Research Institute and cofounder and inventor of Enochian BioSciences.

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