Coronavirus drive-through testing continues in Albert Park in Melbourne. (Photo: Julia Back)

Lessons from COVID-19: preparing for the next pandemic

Melbourne International Knowledge Week is back in full swing this year with in-person events across the city, and kicked off this Monday with a discussion that brought together Australia’s leading medical and infectious diseases experts.

“Pandemic-proofing the future”, hosted by the Doherty Institute and University of Melbourne, tackled questions many Australians are wondering over a year into the pandemic: what did we do right, and if (and when) the next pandemic comes along, what should we do differently?

Here’s what the experts had to say:

More global and local co-operation

While, on a global scale, Australia has handled the pandemic well, the situation around the world is still wildly varying. India reached a pandemic record of daily infections last week, and with the vaccinations severely delayed in Australia, the pandemic is far from over.

In the future, more co-ordinated global responses could help us tackle new viruses on a strong footing.

Director of the Doherty Institute Professor Sharon Lewin says acting quickly will be the key to preventing future pandemics.

“We need to have mechanisms in place that allow global sharing of information,” she said,” and we have to have partnerships with all countries, rich and poor.”

The issues with co-operation are as much local as they are global.

Professor Deborah Williamson, Director of Microbiology at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, believes the continuing lack of centralised systems for infectious disease control in Australia will complicate our handling of future pandemics.

“It is still devastatingly hard to share information between laboratories in Victoria and across the country,” she said. “In Victoria, we still don’t have a state-wide pathology network, so every diagnostic lab and hospital operate essentially independently.”

“We need to stop operating independently and start operating as a system, not just here in Victoria, but in Australia and internationally.”

Former WHO virologist Dr Kanta Subbarao says we will also have to become more willing and able to change our tactics as new information on pandemics becomes available.

The changing narratives around the use of face masks and the understanding of COVID-19 as an airborne threat speak to this need.

“We should be open in science to new facts and new knowledge,” said Dr Subbarao, “we have to be flexible and change our messaging as we go.”

An expert panel of infectious disease and public health professionals took part in a panel discussion hosted by journalist Virginia Trioli. (Photo: Julia Back)

Better testing and treatments

Prof Williamson was the first scientist to use saliva testing for Covid, and is pioneering new rapid antigen tests for quick future testing in Australia.

She thinks there should be more effort put into the diagnostics around viruses.

“Many in the testing space think it’s PCR tests or nothing,” she said. “But we really need to think outside the box and think about taking testing to the patients. I’d like to see much more focus on scalable, rapid and robust point of care testing.”

While vaccine development has been at the forefront of the battle against the virus, and countries are racing to vaccinate their populations for COVID-19, new variants are questioning the long-term efficacy of many of the vaccines.

Pfizer announced recently that it may require a third “booster” shot, and some experts think COVID vaccines could become annual, like with the flu.

Nobel Prize-winning Professor Peter Doherty says another priority is to come up with treatments and drugs for those infected with Covid.

“We still don’t have good drugs for COVID,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. We could have done that.”

“The vaccines are very specific because you have to make them for each specific virus. Drugs are different, you can make drugs against a whole class of viruses.”

The event hosted at the University of Melbourne was a part of the Melbourne Knowledge Week 2021. (Photo: Julia Back)

Enough scientific funding and preparedness

Experts agree that, in the end, how prepared we are for the next pandemic is determined by one thing: money.

Specific jobs and resources created for pandemic-response will allow us to respond more quickly and efficiently, says Prof Williamson.

“The pandemic response last year was basically run by bits of people who had other jobs,” she said. “We need to have people and resources, and a structural change for pandemic preparedness.”

Dr Subbarao says that while the pandemic has got international scientific communities and even pharmaceuticals working with each other more than ever, within Australia there is still too much competition in the arena of scientific research.

“At the scientific level people in different parts of the country are doing their own things,” she said, “and I worry that we have been competing for the same pots of money to do very important things in a very short period of time.”

This can only be solved by more diverse and proper funding that has to continue long after COVID-19, as we really don’t know when the next pandemic will be, and if it will affect us the same way COVID-19 has.

One thing all of the experts agree on is that it is not a question of if, but rather when, a future pandemic will surface.

“There were two coronaviruses circulating in the world before 2000, now there are six,” Prof Doherty said. “We need to look at this from the economic, sociologic, medical and preventative aspects to come to conclusions on how we should deal with viruses in the future.”