It’s Time to Prepare for the Next Pandemic

With more than 4 million known deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how underprepared many health systems are to protect people. While it is difficult to think about the next pandemic, the time to prepare is now.

The gaps brought to light during the COVID-19 response provide a guide on how to improve country readiness and Ready2Respond, hosted at The Task Force for Global Health, is an important coalition, formed to drive this effort in low-and middle-income countries.

“Response to the pandemic has highlighted that many low- and middle-income countries have fewer systems to protect their populations,” said Dr. Mark McKinlay, Director for The Task Force’s Center for Vaccine Equity, where Ready2Respond is based. “This is obviously tragic for the people impacted and also exposes a critical gap in global health security. If we have learned anything from COVID-19, it is how interconnected we all are.”

Launched  in December 2020 with partners such as Wellcome Trust, Resolve to Save Lives, the U.S. CDC, Seqirus, WHO,  CEPI and others, Ready2Respond is a global collaboration committed to enhancing low- and middle-income countries’ readiness to respond to influenza and emerging respiratory viral disease pandemics.

Ready2Respond builds on The Task Force’s history of convening diverse partners across multiple sectors to improve global health, as well as expertise in seasonal influenza programs, infectious disease surveillance, workforce development, and vaccine implementation.

In March 2019, before the world knew of  COVID, a group of global health leaders  came together at the Wellcome Trust in London to assess challenges countries face in planning and implementing seasonal influenza programs. Attendees agreed that countries across the world were at risk and committed to a global collaborative effort to support influenza and pandemic readiness.

A health worker leads a training on influenza vaccination in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Reyoh Photography for PIVI.

The Task Force’s Partnership for Influenza Vaccine Introduction (PIVI), a public-private partnership to establish seasonal influenza programs in low-and middle-income countries, played a key role in launching this initiative. With the advent of COVID-19, Ready2Respond broadened its mandate.

In a recent MedPage Today opinion piece,  Ready2Respond Director Dr. Marie Mazur and members of its Strategic Advisory Group highlighted the risk of ignoring the threat of influenza, saying “seasonal influenza has all but disappeared as a subject of discussion in the global sphere.”

While COVID-19 has rightfully taken the spotlight of global public health efforts, this shift is detrimental to overall pandemic preparedness. Continuing to establish seasonal influenza vaccination programs in countries is essential. Case studies from countries in which seasonal influenza vaccination programs were present before the 2009 influenza pandemic have shown that they were better able to import and use vaccines than countries without such programs.

Data are currently being collected to evaluate how countries have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data from PIVI country partners show that having in place a seasonal influenza vaccination program reinforced an efficient COVID-19 response.

Partner countries like Albania, Armenia, Bhutan, Laos, and Mongolia demonstrated that they easily adapted influenza vaccine targeted planning to access COVID-19 priority vaccination groups such as healthcare workers, utilized experience with addressing legal and vaccine procurement barriers, and modified training materials for health workers – among other adapted interventions. As one of the Ready2Respond partners, PIVI is able to share information they are gathering at the country level to inform Ready2Respond’s broader strategy.

Ready2Respond seeks to refocus global health security and public health efforts and utilize these lessons learned from influenza and COVID-19 to build stronger systems. To that end, Ready2Respond intentionally invests in the development of tools and operational solutions with the goal of reducing capability gaps that other organizations are not addressing.

Header photo: Nurses working in the prenatal care unit at Sethathirath Hospital outside of Vientiane, Lao, PDR are trained to provide pregnant women and other high-risk groups with seasonal influenza vaccine. Photo courtesy of Billy Weeks.

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