Another Pandemic Is Coming. Will We Be Ready? | Opinion

The costs of the COVID-19 pandemic have been enormous in terms of both human and economic damage. In the United States, more than 80,000 people have died, and the Federal Reserve chairman announced Wednesday that 40 percent of households earning less than $40,000 a year lost jobs in March. The government is scrambling to respond, but along the way creating a fiscal debt of trillions that will be borne by generations to come.

It doesn't have to be this way again. Since antiquity, infectious microbial pathogens have caused pandemics that have exacted an enormous human and economic toll. Informed by this history, as well as the lessons learned from the current crisis, we can create an integrated system of technologies that will allow us to respond more rapidly and effectively to the next pandemic, saving thousands of lives and trillions of dollars.

In particular, we envision a future where four interlinked technologies can create a more pandemic-resilient world.

Testing: Based on existing advances in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, biosensing and device engineering, we can create diagnostic tests that are reliable, portable, user-friendly and minimally invasive. These tests will have interchangeable parts that can be adapted to detect a new virus or corresponding antibodies. With such tools, we will be able to rapidly survey a large proportion of the population to monitor and mitigate the spread of disease.

Vaccines: SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the illness COVID-19, is not mutating much now, but the challenges are much greater for pandemics caused by rapidly mutating viruses. By bringing together the life, physical, engineering and medical sciences, we can design effective vaccines against highly mutable viruses in less time. Sophisticated computational approaches can be applied to massive sets of data on virus sequences and structures and coupled with clinical data on disease pathogenesis to identify targets on a virus. A vaccine-induced immune response that attacks these targets could kill or disable the virus.

Treatments: The development of therapies that can cure disease is a game-changer. An approach for the rapid development of antiviral therapies tailored to a specific pandemic can be achieved by leveraging artificial intelligence, bioengineering and the life sciences. Novel machine learning approaches applied to data sets obtained by screening large numbers of drug candidates can enable rapid discovery, design and development of new antiviral therapies.

Manufacturing: Formulation and manufacturing of millions of doses of vaccines or therapeutics takes many months. We are only beginning to understand the vaccine formulations and flexible manufacturing methods that will enable us to rapidly make new products that are sufficiently pure to safely administer to humans. Advanced manufacturing approaches and compatible regulatory policies can enable large-scale manufacturing of vaccines and therapies to begin a short time after successful clinical trials. Approaches that include synthetic biology can also be used to develop alternative ways to manufacture drugs that would leave us less reliant on other nations in times of crisis.

N95 decontamination system coronavirus
Decontamination technicians prepare to test a new Battelle decontamination system for N95 respirators on May 8 in Brighton, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo/Getty

It is critical to recognize that while the descriptions above are technical, they are not entirely "futuristic." They are likely within reach with adequate investments to advance science and engineering.

But getting there requires recognizing a fundamental barrier: These advances don't interest most individual companies, which worry they won't be profitable without another pandemic. Instead, they require public-private-academic partnerships to undertake the necessary research, development and manufacturing.

Governments must play a leadership role by signaling that they will support the purchase of pandemic preparation materials, and by providing the support for basic research and development required to push forward the technological frontier. Academic institutions must provide leadership in answering the questions that broadly advance our technological knowledge and in working with private companies to turn those answers into reality. And private companies must respond to the signals coming from the government and the knowledge coming out of academia with a coherent and productive plan for creating the goods that we need.

History teaches us that the returns to the U.S. economy will be high as well. The government's investment of $3 billion in the Human Genome Project has created 280,000 jobs, and the genomics sector pays more than $6 billion a year in U.S. taxes. Investing in a pandemic-resistant future will ensure that the U.S. creates more good-paying jobs while also advancing health care.

We know with certainty that there will be another pandemic. Whether it will be a further mutation of COVID-19 or some new pathogen, and when it will happen, is unclear. What is clear is that unless we make the far-sighted investments needed, we will continue to suffer needless deaths and economic catastrophe. Let's make the future that we describe here a reality by the time we face our next pandemic.

Arup K. Chakraborty is the Robert T. Haslam Professor in Chemical Engineering, as well as professor of Physics and Chemistry, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Jonathan Gruber is the Ford Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book Jump-Starting America, with co-author Simon Johnson, is out now.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.