Next pandemic could be round the corner; here’s what the world can do

Surveillance and sustained preparedness could help mankind avert future ‘COVIDs’, says Novartis chief Vas Narasimhan

At a virtual summit, Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan shared his views on how policymakers and healthcare professionals can better equip themselves for future contagions. Pic: www.novartis.com

The Spanish Flu and Black Death had always been viewed in sepia tones — tragedies that wouldn’t strike the world again. COVID came in as a rude shock, and now healthcare experts say pandemics may become a regular feature henceforth.

That being the case, how best can policymakers and healthcare professionals equip themselves for future contagions? At the virtual CNBC Evolve Global Summit, Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Swiss pharma giant Novartis, shared his views.

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While there is broad awareness of what needs to be done, sustaining the measures over time is difficult, Narasimhan said. “We know the answers and we know what needs to happen. The tricky thing, I think, is going to be four-five years from now,” he remarked. “Often, what happens is attention moves away from pandemic preparedness, investments go down and then the susceptibility levels go up.”

‘Bound to happen again’

“Pandemics have been with us for centuries. If you go back into the recorded history, probably on the order of 15 pandemics in the last 200 to 300 years…so, pandemics periodically happen, and they are probably bound to happen again in the future,” said Narasimhan, as quoted by a CNBC report.

Surveillance and a sound policy framework are important, he said. “We know what the solutions are — it is just very hard to maintain the investments over time. We need world-class surveillance to really identify when viruses move from animal populations to human populations, and we need a policy framework for that information to be very rapidly shared,” he observed.

Also read: Why it’s important to wait at inoculation centre for at least 30 minutes

What had hugely impeded India’s fight against COVID, particularly the second wave, was a scarcity of facilities such as ICU beds, oxygen supply, ventilators and critical drugs. To avoid this in future, a substantial level is preparedness is required.

‘Warm preparedness’

Health systems would need “warm preparedness” such as arranging for protective-gear stockpiles and manufacturing capabilities in advance, Narasimhan noted at the summit. Maintaining the stock levels of critical goods related to patient care is essential, he added. Additionally, governments and other healthcare stakeholder have to continue to invest in therapeutics, vaccines and diagnostics.

Narasimhan also expressed hope that the world will be more cautious post COVID. “I’m optimistic this time. I think this pandemic has really been a wake-up call,” he noted. “I also think we have better technology than we have ever had from a therapeutics and diagnostics standpoint, so hopefully for the next pandemic will be even better.”

Recently, Novartis announced plans to start clinical trials for an investigational medicine to treat COVID along with fellow Swiss drugmaker Molecular Partners, said the CNBC report. The clinical trial programme, called ‘Empathy’, will examine the safety and efficacy of Ensovibep in patients in the early stages of a COVID infection, it added.

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