This is a pivotal moment, one rife with positive outcomes in the longer term equivalent to those of “The Sputnik Moment” of 1957, when we were caught unawares by the Soviets launching the first rocket into space and then the first missile-bearing rocket.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is an unfolding global tragedy, yet a largely preventable one if we had heeded history. Scientists and public health experts anticipated this calamity as conveyed in a 2007 first paper warning of a threat of even greater magnitude than the first coronavirus outbreak (SARS) that killed 800,000 people in 2001. The paper heeded that “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb.” [i]
Yet despite years of warnings from scientists, public health officials, and NGOs, the preparation and response from national governments or international governance bodies was anemic at best. [ii]
The consequences? An anticipated death toll approaching one half million in the U.S alone in 2020, the loss of trillions of dollars, and longer-term health and economic consequences that are likely to eclipse these numbers.
While devastating, in some respects, we are fortunate that SARS-CoV-2 turned out to be less lethal than SARS and, thanks to investments in science, we now have the technological prowess to rapidly sequence virus genomes and develop therapies and the all-important vaccine(s) in record time.
But here’s the thing.
The pandemic highlighted the importance of investing in basic science and technology for the long haul. And it exposed the uneven investments in wellness and healthcare across society, particularly for those in poor and rural communities. As a result, the pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on underserved communities within individual wealthy countries and those with poorer countries around the world. Ultimately all of humanity pays a price for that.
We can we learn from this experience?
Turning Tragedy into Opportunity
This is a pivotal moment one rife with positive outcomes in the longer term — equivalent to those of “The Sputnik Moment” of 1957 — when we were caught unawares by the Soviets launching the first rocket into space and then the first missile-bearing rocket. The initial reaction in the U.S. and other countries around the world to that threat was fear and panic. The inadequacies of our science infrastructure and priorities, our healthcare systems, our educational systems, and community readiness were suddenly exposed.
So, how did America respond? Rather than fear and finger pointing, the U.S. came together to not only launch an unprecedented era of innovation, but it also awakened our better angels as a people. We began turning a global challenge into transformative and lasting change. By the early 1960’s enormous investments were pouring into developing science and STEM. The result was one of the greatest scientific research and development runs in the history of our country and the world, culminating in global technological leadership, the successful moonshot, the supremacy of our science and universities, the creation of multitrillion-dollar biotech and technology industries, and the beginning of a coordinated healthcare infrastructure for all.
The COVID pandemic could be our new moment — like The Sputnik Moment. It can be a wakeup call – a chance to again become the next visionaries and turn a global challenge into lasting change. We can:
- Invest in creating cooperative coalitions of skilled research teams, eliminating science silos and using collective scientific genius for key grand challenges, much as we did for The Human Genome Project. In fact, we have that effort to thank for our ability to quickly sequence SARS-CoV-2 and begin work towards treatments and vaccines within days. Why not replicate that success with moonshot efforts for the prevention of existing and novel infectious diseases, as well as for chronic debilitating illnesses such as cancer and diabetes?
- Reshape our health care system to focus on healthcare, not disease-care — delivering preventive services at scale and asymmetrically to poorer communities. This pandemic is shining a light so bright it can no longer be ignored. We see the inequities of who gets sick and who gets access to healthcare services. The burden of illness falls on those with the least socio-economic resources to deal with it: Blacks, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Hispanics, poor whites, and immigrants. [iii] These populations experience significantly higher rates of infection and death and inadequate access to care. We can summon the will to provide trustworthy care at little or no cost. (Note: Opa Health is one of the new efforts working with government research and healthcare leaders, healthcare systems, religious bodies such as the Vatican, and community leaders to create cooperative programs to address this problem.) [iv]
- Invest in the resiliency of our society by educating our children and youth in STEM, biology, medicine, and science research methodologies to produce better prepared researchers and health care providers.
- Dismantle and rebuild the financial insurance and pharmaceutical infrastructure that hobbles our doctors and encourages treatment of symptoms rather than holistic disease prevention. Wellness and prevention should be economically incentivized.
- Invest in interlinked digital health systems that will facilitate faster, better quality care at less cost. We need granular neighborhood level data on disease risk factors in order to deploy the right resources where they are needed most. The heterogeneity of health data is strikingly. Within a major city, there are neighborhoods with an average life expectancy less than that of Yemen and North Korea, while others a short distance away, enjoy life expectancies equivalent to Japan and Switzerland.
We can’t let the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic be a legacy of tragedy only. It is an opportunity to make radical and innovative changes that are long overdue. This is our COVID Moment.
My hope is that when we look back 50 years from now, we’ll be able to say that we let tragedy bring us together rather than rip us apart. Let’s begin to dialogue not about problems and divisions, but on how we can respond with collective vision and compassion to reinvent a healthier, safer world.
[i] “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection,” Vincent C. C. Cheng, Susanna K. P. Lau, Patrick C. Y. Woo, Kwok Yung Yuen, Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 2007.
[ii] The Atlantic
[iv] Opa Health