We Predicted the Coronavirus Pandemic but Nobody Would Listen | Opinion

Nations are closing their borders, cities are being locked down and citizens told to stay at home. We haven't seen a public health threat like this since the influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed over 50 million people. Conservative estimates suggest COVID-19 will cost the global economy at least $1 trillion in lost output, or 1.3 percent  of global GDP.

A pandemic with this impact was not only predictable, it was predicted. Last September, an expert group called the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board—of which I'm a member—warned that the world was at acute risk and desperately unprepared. One of the gravest threats we highlighted was a fast-moving pandemic caused by a lethal respiratory pathogen.

We called for immediate, forceful and coordinated action. The response was non-existent. As a result, today's challenge is not to prepare for a pandemic (though that must still happen). It is the altogether more difficult task of responding to one.

G7 leaders have vowed to do whatever it takes, and the G20 will meet this week to agree a joint response. This time, warm words must be matched with action.

One of the most urgent actions required is investment of at least $8 billion in the equitable development and manufacturing of vaccines, drugs and better diagnostics.

It is because we have none of these medical countermeasures that the world has been forced to shut down cities and ask citizens to stay at home—with painful social, economic and political consequences. Drugs, vaccines and diagnostics are the surest way we have of saving lives, bringing this pandemic to an end and preventing it reappearing.

Investment in research is the world's best exit strategy. There is plenty of hope that we can pull this off.

All over the world, scientists are working at tremendous pace to develop vaccines, to test existing drugs that could become treatments for COVID-19, and to improve diagnostic tests.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is launching a common global clinical trial, the Solidarity Trial. It will initially test four drugs that can be swiftly repurposed against COVID-19 and add others as they become available. The COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator has been launched by Wellcome, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Mastercard Foundation to support more of this work.

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovations (CEPI) is already supporting 12 vaccine projects—one of which began a trial in humans just 60 days after the virus was first identified. Dozens more vaccine candidates are being developed around the world, under the oversight of the WHO.

Science has the will and the ability to do this. But it needs more money.

An initial $8 billion—a fraction of what governments have found to protect their economies—would provide the resources needed both to develop drugs and vaccines and to start to scale up production so the world can make billions of doses.

The only way through this pandemic is by working together. There is an excellent chance that some drugs and vaccine candidates will pay off and give us our exit strategy. But others will fail, and I cannot predict—no-one can predict—which ones will prove safe and effective.

That means that no nation can afford to back only its own national research effort. We must pursue everything promising, wherever it comes from, and agree to share both the financial costs and the benefits. When we do get drugs and vaccines, everyone will want access and this must be arranged equitably.

This vital funding for research and manufacturing is far from the only investment the world must make to get through this pandemic. Health systems and health workers are stretched to their limits. I have heard colleagues describe horrible decisions about who to put on the only remaining ventilator, and whether to go home to their families. We must fund the World Health Organization to lead the public health response and give hospitals and health workers the tools they need to treat patients and protect themselves.

In truth though, we need this all. The emergency response. The economic stimulus. And the investment in drugs, vaccines and diagnostics that will ultimately allow the world to get back to something approaching normality.

The moment is now. We can't afford to lose any more time.

Views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Jeremy Farrar is a clinician and researcher specialising in infectious diseases. He is a scientific and public health adviser to the WHO and to the UK and German governments, was personally involved in the global response to SARS and pandemic influenza, and has been consistently vocal in calling for global leaders to do much more to prepare for pandemics. He is the Director of Wellcome, an independent charitable foundation supporting research to improve health across the world, which brings together science, innovation and public health with a perspective that includes wider social, cultural and political contexts of global science and health.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • If you feel unwell (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and call local health authorities in advance.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.