More pandemics are coming, and the UK is woefully underprepared: that’s the stark warning from top scientists as the world continues to feel the impact of COVID-19. We’ve always known that it was not a one-off event, but there is a fear that lessons are not being learned and that the next pandemic could be even more devastating as a result.
Writing in The Independent, Professor Teresa Lambe – who helped develop the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine – warned that we are “sitting ducks” until more emphasis is placed on pandemic preparedness: “Building the infrastructure, investing in people and modifying policy to enable adequate pandemic preparedness is an insurance policy well worth the investment.”
Former chief scientific advisor to the UK government Sir David King was unequivocal in his view. He told The Independent, “We’re in the same position as we were in 2020. Nothing has changed... if anything it has got worse.”
Immunologist and geneticist Sir John Bell echoed these sentiments in a separate opinion piece. “Experiencing one pandemic does not reduce the threat of the next or mean that it couldn’t happen this year or next,” he wrote. “One thing is clear – despite everything we have learned, we are not ready for the next pandemic and have even seen cuts in our health security infrastructure.”
Recent polling suggests that these worries have filtered down to the British public too, with a YouGov survey finding that most Brits don’t feel the government is taking the threat of future pandemics seriously.
COVID-19 was the worst pandemic in living memory. As well as the devastating loss of life across the globe – particularly before the development of vaccines and more targeted treatment approaches – there are millions of people with long COVID, the full ramifications of which are yet to be unpicked. Beyond the health impacts of the virus itself, the broader societal effects of infection control measures like lockdowns, and the stress of living through such a turbulent time, will continue to be researched and debated.
But COVID-19 was not the first pandemic humanity has ever seen, and it certainly won’t be the last. The 1918 flu pandemic devastated a world emerging from the grip of warfare, and similar H1N1 strains of the influenza virus caused further (albeit less catastrophic) pandemics in 1977 and 2009. Under the right circumstances, animal diseases like Marburg virus disease and avian flu can “spill over” and spread throughout human populations. Even a The Last Of Us-style fungal pandemic is not beyond the realms of possibility.
Because of this ever-present risk, experts argue, humanity should learn lessons from COVID-19 and seek to avoid history repeating itself.
“What can we learn from COVID-19 and its early spread? How do early policy responses compare in different countries? And what were the reasons for the collective failure to fast-track access to life-saving technologies for the most vulnerable populations during this crisis?” asks Sir John Bell.
“We need to consider the worst-case pandemic scenarios and stimulate sustained political focus and investment from governments, global health organisations and industry into pandemic preparedness.”
It would be all too easy, he writes, to think of COVID-19 as over and done with – at least for those not still directly living with its ill effects. But in doing so, we risk a potentially avoidable catastrophe the next time around.
“The next pandemic could be even more devastating than the last. We must be in a constant state of readiness for the next big health crisis – if we do not act now, we will not be forgiven.”