If pandemics are predictable, could they be preventable?

James Coe says that through its universities, the UK can lead the way in protecting the world from future pandemics.

James Coe is Senior Policy Advisor at the University of Liverpool and a Contributing Editor at Wonkhe

Pandemics are neither totally unpredictable nor uncommon. Zoonotic diseases, those transferred from animals to humans, make up the majority of global pandemics. In recent memory these include bird flu, swine flu, foot and mouth disease, and of course Covid-19.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw the mass mobilisation of the UK’s R&D capacity. The patient funding of research into viruses, vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics was mobilised by a mix of private and public sector actors to roll out a national relief effort never seen before in peacetime.

The strength of our nation’s R&D base is that it is diverse and Covid-19 demonstrated that funding can be flexible when it needs to be.

Future threats

While Covid-19 is still with us, if we are to prevent another global pandemic of this virulence it will require a different approach to our pandemic research.

It is not enough to make the case that an increase in research funding in this area is necessary. This would be welcome but no amount of funding will be sufficient without the proper coordination of resources, research, and people working in this area.

In Liverpool, we have just launched the Pandemic Institute, which has been established with the singular goal to predict, prevent, and protect our national and global populations from the next pandemic. This is a cross-regional effort involving partners from the University of Liverpool, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Liverpool John Moores University, and a mix of civic and private partners.

This will only be possible by building on the learnings from Covid-19. Liverpool, like elsewhere in the country, suffered greatly from its impacts.

We know that impacts have been uneven along lines of race, class, and access to testing. Liverpool was the first place in the country to stand up mass testing pilots and run events trials. This was only possible because of civic actors’ bravery and the latent research of the city’s universities.

Global impact

Covid-19 has been a global tragedy and we know pandemics respect no borders. Without coordinated international action, viruses are allowed to mutate, rip through populations, and cause untold misery.

It would be an unacceptable response to protect national interest when global action is possible. Therefore, the first arm of the Institute looks at viral sampling, capacity building, and work on the ground, in nations across the globe that have been deprived of the resources to tackle Covid-19.

Understanding where pandemics emerge is a good start but it is not enough to prevent future pandemics. At the University of Liverpool, we have what we believe to be the largest database of zoonotic diseases in the world.

This was developed during the foot and mouth outbreak of the early 2000s and demonstrates the importance of long-term investment into R&D assets which may one day become invaluable.

Using this database, the Institute will use AI modelling to help understand where the next pandemic is likely to emerge. Feeding in further zoonotic samples into the database will improve the accuracy of the predictions over time.

This work will be carried out by a mixture of university and civic partners in Liverpool as well as global private and public sector bodies.

The experience of Liverpool during the pandemic will be used as a model to roll out insight, advice, and resources, into testing, diagnostics, and protecting populations from the emergence of future pandemics. The agglomeration of expertise and assets will also support the creation of jobs in data, population health, and broader life science-related fields.

If “Global Britain” is to mean anything for R&D, it is surely this. Turning one of the greatest challenges the country has faced into an opportunity to be a leader in preventing it from ever happening again.

Covid-19 has shown that civic coordination is the only response to a threat of this magnitude. Practically, a nascent levelling-up agenda should consider the infrastructure investment which will boost the reach of R&D initiatives like this; lab space; relocation incentives; transport links; and digital connection. Morally, there can be few more important areas for our country to lead this century.

James Coe’s The New University is published by 404ink and out this month.

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