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‘We were the best prepared of the nations who were not prepared’

ORAU’s 2022 annual meeting focuses on lessons learned from coronavirus pandemic

‘We were the best prepared of the nations who were not prepared’

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association

The coronavirus pandemic has upended life as we know it in the United States and around the world for the past two years. What have we learned from this pandemic that we can carry forward to be better prepared for the next one?

“Public Health Security and Innovation: Lessons Learned from COVID-19” was the topic of ORAU’s Annual Meeting of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions, held virtually March 7 and 8, 2022. ORAU is a consortium of more than 150 colleges and universities.

This pandemic was about more than the spread of a virus, said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association and keynote speaker of the meeting. Benjamin said managing the coronavirus pandemic was hampered by additional epidemics of misinformation and disinformation, fear and the politicization of science.

“The United States was thought to be the best prepared of all the nations in the world [to fight a pandemic], but we were unfortunately the best prepared of the nations who were not prepared,” he said.

Benjamin said lack of preparedness and other issues cannot be laid at a single individual’s feet; rather, many of the challenges are systemic and have been brewing for years:

  • We didn’t use the research we know from previous pandemics.
  • Delivery of vaccines was not well researched or planned.
  • The nation’s public health infrastructure has been inadequately funded for years.
  • Data is a major problem because of old systems that don’t communicate with each other.
  • Violence against health workers is a big issue and causing them to leave.

Additionally, as medical professionals better understood and got more skilled at managing the disease, ventilators, considered life-saving early on in the pandemic, became less useful and often unnecessary.

To be better prepared for the next pandemic, or the one after that as the case may be, means the United States needs to build the next-generation public health system, Benjamin said. To that end, he offered the following recommendations:

  1. Radically transform and fully integrate U.S. public health and health care systems data infrastructure.
  2. Build a comprehensive capacity to rapidly track and evaluate pathogenic organisms using next- generation genetic tools.
  3. Develop a robust system to forecast disease as a tool for prevention and early intervention.
  4. Strengthen the all-hazards emergency preparedness leadership program for the U.S.
  5. Restore public trust in science and government and improve public science literacy.
  6. Operationalize health equity in public health and health care.

Meeting those recommendations, and finding and improving solutions in advance of the next pandemic may come from data and information discovered through applied research, said Luis Gabriel Cuervo, senior advisor for research for health at Pan American Health Organization.

Speaking on a panel titled, “Adaptive Solutions for Abundant Food, Health and Prosperity in a COVID-Disrupted World,” Cuervo said applied research into the following issues will be of great benefit to preparedness for the next pandemic: universal health coverage; assessing trust and leadership; dealing with misinformation; taking a health approach to health and the development of healthy societies; health equity; and drivers of human behavior, like learning about the incentives and disincentives for behavior change.

The role for universities

Universities are likely to play a major role in conducting this research and in helping develop the workforce of the future, according to Diane DiEuliis, assistant director and senior fellow at National Defense University.

DiEuliis agreed with Benjamin that improving data integration and reliability is critical. Speaking during a panel discussion entitled, “Bio-Economy: Supply Chain Resiliency and Workforce Needs,” she said: “Sharing data is good for the life sciences. It’s good for innovation and discovery.”

Speaking to the issue of future workforce needs, DiEuliis discussed the importance of cybersecurity

“The Chinese are going all out to collect genomic data that they will pair to AI (artificial intelligence) and other data to sell products,” she said. “The software algorithms that are being created could also be infiltrated.”

Cybersecurity is one example of careers where the traditional model of learning in the classroom isn’t going to work, said Rachel Lipson, director of the Project on Workforce at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard University

“It’s contingent upon universities to offer college-to-career connections into emerging fields to their students,” she said. “Paid work experience leads to stronger workforce outcomes,” she said.

There are any number of lessons to be learned from the coronavirus pandemic. Leaning in to what we have learned and building a world-class public health system that includes equitable delivery of care, a focus on improved data and data security, building a stronger scientific workforce, and continuing applied research on a number of important topics will put the United States in a better position to manage future pandemics.

Learn more about the ORAU’s 2022 Annual Meeting of the Council of Sponsoring Institutions.