Preparing for future pandemics is now a major priority for nation states across the globe.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that UK scientists have begun developing vaccines as an insurance against a new pandemic caused by an unknown “Disease X”.
The work is being carried out at the government’s high-security Porton Down laboratory complex in Wiltshire by a team of more than 200 scientists, who have drawn up a threat list of animal viruses that are capable of infecting humans and could in future spread rapidly around the world
The Vaccine Development and Evaluation Centre at Porton Down has been expanded to take on the work. Originally, it was focused on COVID-19 and testing the effectiveness of vaccines against new variants. However, scientists at the centre are now involved in monitoring a range of high-risk pathogens, including bird flu, monkeypox and hantavirus, a disease spread by rodents.
One early success is the world’s first vaccine against Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever, a disease that’s spread by ticks and has a fatality rate of 30%.
Early-stage clinical trials have just started, with 24 volunteers expected to test the jab, as the disease is becoming more common in Europe as global temperatures rise and some travellers have returned to the UK with the infection.
White House efforts
It’s not only the UK that is taking major steps to address emerging pandemic risk. The Biden administration recently announced that it will centre White House efforts to address threats of various transmissible diseases, pathogens and other biological agents in a new permanent office headed by a member of the National Security Council (NSC).
The new body is to be called the Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy (OPPR).
OPPR will be “charged with leading, coordinating, and implementing actions related to preparedness for, and response to, known and unknown biological threats or pathogens that could lead to a pandemic or to significant public health-related disruptions in the United States”, according to a handout.
The new office will shift the White House’s COVID-19 eponse efforts from a standalone team to a broader group that will include experts working on a number of different potential “public health-related disruptions”, including new variants of the influenza (common flu) virus.
“Under President Biden’s leadership, the Administration has taken significant steps to ensure all individuals have continued access to lifesaving protections such as vaccines, treatments, and tests, and that the nation is well prepared to manage the risks of COVID-19 or other causes of potential pandemics in the future,” a White House statement read.
The office’s inaugural director will be Major General (retired) Paul Friedrichs, special assistant to President Biden and the Senior Director for Global Health Security and Biodefense on the National Security Council.
The new office comes three months after Biden formally ended the national emergency declaration over the pandemic. More than 1.1 million Americans have died from COVID-19 since it first emerged in the US in early 2020.
Europe is also talking the issue of future pandemic preparedness very seriously. In December 2022, the European Union’s Health Emergency Preparedness Authority (HERA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) also initiated a new partnership with a EUR15 million allocation under the EU4Health programme to boost capacities at national, regional, and global levels for better preparedness for and response to health emergencies.
In the framework of this partnership, HERA will fund four global initiatives:
- To support epidemic and pandemic intelligence, as well as access to and sharing of data and analytics through the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Preparedness to assist decision-making with regards to health emergencies preparedness and response;
- The development of new medical countermeasures for tackling antimicrobial resistance (AMR), notably the development of antibiotics efficient against resistant pathogens that pose the greatest threat to health. This action would ensure sustainable access to AMR treatments and promote their responsible use and affordability, while also driving research and prioritisation of the search for new antimicrobials;
- The scaling up of national capacities for SARS-CoV-2 & Emerging Pathogens detection & genomic surveillance in Africa; and
- The COVID-19 Technology Access Pool (C-TAP) to ensure the fastest, most coordinated, and successful global effort to develop and facilitate access to technologies to fight COVID-19.
HERA was established as a new Directorate-General at the European Commission (EC) on 16 September 2021, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is considered to be a key pillar of the European Health Union and its mission is to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to health emergencies.