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Pandemic expert calls for action now against future outbreaks

EU warned against complacency when Covid-19 is defeated

A former World Health Organization leader on pandemic preparedness has warned that much more investment is needed in public health infrastructure, even after Covid-19 is defeated.

Future outbreaks of similar diseases are highly probable, says Máire Connolly, who coordinated an EU-funded project on pandemic preparedness called Pandem.

“We can’t sit back and say we’ve had our coronavirus pandemic now, that’s it, we’re OK for another 15 or 20 years,” she told Research Professional News.

Connolly worked at the WHO from 1995 to 2012, is now a professor of health security and infectious disease at National University of Ireland Galway, and is assisting authorities with their response to Covid-19.

“There is no guarantee that the next strain of influenza is not the same as 1918 and that we don’t end up in exactly the same situation in two or three years’ time,” she said, referring to the year when a devastating strain of flu killed tens of millions of people around the world.

Pandem ran from 2015 to 2017 and received €1.3 million from the EU’s R&D programme. A consortium team including the Swedish public health and defence research agencies and the WHO’s Europe office assessed pandemic preparedness at global, EU and national levels, identifying gaps and making recommendations for improvements.

The European Commission’s migration and home affairs department was “very far-sighted” and “showed great wisdom” in putting out the call that funded the project, Connolly said.

She thinks EU member states’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic show that the project’s recommendations were taken on board.

For example, one recommendation was that governments should ensure they have the legal powers needed to enforce quarantines. By the time Covid-19 began sweeping across Europe “in some countries there was very little adaptation needed to the legislation once emergency powers were enacted”, says Connolly.

Nevertheless, Covid-19 has revealed areas in which the EU could be better prepared for future pandemics.

For example, Connolly said cross-border sharing of healthcare equipment such as masks and ventilators “has proven to be a challenge”. She welcomed the 27 March annoucnement of the first-ever EU-wide stockpile of these vital pieces of equipment.

Other areas of potential improvement include the development of rapid tests for diseases, and use of smartphones to track cases.

Members of the Pandem team have carried on with related work since the project ended. Connolly points to work by Jean-Luc Gala, a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, on the utility of cloth masks for protecting healthcare workers, that she said is being reviewed by the Belgian government.

The team failed to win funding to continue the Pandem project; another team won the €10m call to work on a follow-up.

Connolly said it is “great” that the as-yet unannounced winner of the call “has very strong private sector buy-in” which she believes will add to the work done by Pandem.

She half-jokingly said she was “relieved” not to have won, now that she and the public health agencies involved in the bid are so busy with Covid-19. But she said ideally there would have been enough funding for both projects to work in tandem and called for “much greater investment” in related research in future, in particular to boost the capacity of public health agencies.

“If you’re putting out fires all the time, you don’t have the extra capacity to engage in research,” she said. “Public health systems have to be invested in. That ability to work together across different sectors is crucial.”