Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion

New viral threats are moving fast. Here’s how we can move faster

July 18, 2022, 10:08 AM UTC
Viruses know no borders–and our efforts to combat them require international collaboration.
Irfan Khan—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Americans may be done with masking, social distancing, and other precautions designed to limit the spread of COVID-19–but viral threats aren’t done with us.

The new BA.4 and BA.5 variants are surging throughout the world. The United States has reported an average of roughly 100,000 new daily infections over the past two months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and actual case counts are potentially higher.

Besides COVID-19, President Biden recently warned that “everybody should be concerned” about monkeypox cases popping up worldwide. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said the virus may become endemic on the continent if the outbreak isn’t contained soon.

Meanwhile, doctors are struggling to figure out what’s causing hundreds of otherwise healthy children to develop hepatitis. Hypotheses range from COVID-19 infection to an adenovirus infection, or a combination of both.

As a scientist who researches infectious diseases, I have firsthand experience watching viral threats evolve. They move fast. To prevent the next pandemic, we must move faster.

That will require turning the lessons we’ve learned from COVID into action. We need to forge partnerships between government and industry, create global coalitions of doctors, scientists, and researchers to surveil for and respond to potential outbreaks, and train the next generation of virus hunters.

Our collective response to COVID has been at its best when the public and private sectors have collaborated closely. In the early days of the pandemic, private companies stepped up to rapidly develop and manufacture tests. Today, there are more than 300 COVID-19 tests approved by the Food and Drug Administration–and even more available in other countries.

It’s essential that government continues to work with the private sector to identify, procure, and scale up the production of key materials to raise our pandemic defenses.

This collaboration must span continents and oceans. Viruses know no borders. Neither should our efforts to combat them.

We must make it easy for doctors or researchers who confront an unknown illness to share samples and information with scientists worldwide to help with identification. Such collective action leads to quicker discoveries and can give the public health community more time and information to assess the magnitude of the threat.

Once scientists identify a threat, we’ll need access to information on how to combat it. We made great strides in sharing critical scientific information, including viral sequences for new COVID variants. That kind of sharing needs to continue with future threats from new viruses. Ensuring quick access to such information will go a long way toward mounting a swift public health response to any new threats we face.

My team at Abbott and I are working to create these types of global partnerships. We recently launched the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition, a first-of-its-kind industry-led initiative that has brought together 15 academic and public health researchers from 12 countries on five continents. The coalition aims to quickly detect and respond to pandemic threats using a streamlined approach to share data and samples.

That approach proved effective when the Omicron variant popped up in South Africa last year. Our partners there shared the sequence and tested samples of the new variant. That allowed us to confirm that our COVID-19 tests could detect it. The coalition is doing the same as new variants emerge, including BA.5.

The coalition is already tracking new viral threats, including the mysterious emergence of pediatric hepatitis. Members are increasing surveillance for people who develop monkeypox symptoms. Abbott is developing a monkeypox PCR test that will be provided to coalition members to aid in the identification of the virus locally and support genetic analysis efforts.

Meanwhile, we’re keeping our eyes peeled for the pathogen that could become the next global pandemic. Regular communication will ensure we see it coming.

Government, industry, and academia work most effectively together when they trust one another and share what they’re learning about infectious diseases and emerging public health threats freely. Each entity will be able to better do its job–surveilling for dangerous pathogens, manufacturing tests at scale, and so on–if it knows that its partners are doing theirs.

In the long term, we must build our virus-hunting workforce. The World Health Organization recommends a global ratio of one field epidemiologist for every 200,000 people. Only a handful of countries have met that goal.

Initiatives like the Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Intervention Network (TEPHINET), which is already training epidemiologists in more than 100 countries, can help.

We must ensure that these scientists have access to cutting-edge technologies that allow them to gain better insight into a virus’s genetic material and quickly evaluate millions of viral samples.

As the saying goes, it takes a village. In this case, the village must be ready to work together to identify emerging viral threats–and act quickly to stop the next pandemic in its tracks.

Gavin A. Cloherty, Ph.D., is head of infectious disease research and the Pandemic Defense Coalition in the diagnostics business at Abbott.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.