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A Covid-inspired plan to prevent all future pandemics

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What if there is a pandemic much more serious than Covid?

This is a question that has haunted me since early 2020, when we didn’t know exactly how deadly Covid-19 was. After all, what is now known as SARS-CoV-1 killed Almost 10% of confirmed infections. Another coronavirus, MERS, >30% fatality rate if confirmed. However, neither of these viruses were highly contagious. But SARS-CoV-2, better known as Covid, was a highly contagious virus from the start, and had it been killed at a rate approaching that of previous pathogens, the results would have been horrific.

In general, there is a trade-off between virus infectivity and lethality, but it is not a hard and fast rule. smallpox It was more contagious than Covid and as deadly as MERS. There is also the question of which age groups are affected. 1918 flu unjustly killed a healthy young manunlike seasonal influenza, many viruses especially dangerous for babies(I had a newborn in the early days of Covid, and one of the things we were most grateful for was the sheer luck that this virus didn’t seem to be deadly to infants.) did.

I am not reciting this litany as depressingly as possible. We should be realistic about how devastating the pandemic will actually be, but we’re not far from a world where the answer is, “What if we had a pandemic that was much worse than Covid?” It does not mean. “We simply crush it.”

That’s the message of the new Geneva Center for Security Policy report by Massachusetts Institute of Technology biochemists 50 Future Perfects Kevin Esvelt on what to do to prepare for the next pandemic. What’s the point? Whether we go against nature or against human evil, we are not powerless. You really have to invest in being prepared, but being prepared can get you through even the worst scenarios. In other words, a scenario in which a man-made virus designed to be highly deadly and highly contagious is deliberately released.

Three stages of pandemic preparedness

Esvelt, who is deeply involved in biosecurity, calls the first step in delaying preparedness. Tomorrow, if someone creates a deadly man-made flu, we will be in big trouble. COVID clarified The size of the holes in our response plans for the pandemic.we still not enough stockpiles High quality PPE to protect all essential workers in case another virus emerges.we incompetent Detect viruses early and respond before they spread widely. And the rapid spread of the Omicron subspecies shows that even countries resort to extreme measures when a sufficiently contagious virus spreads. you’re going to have a hard time containing it.

Just like Covid, a virus designed to be deadly and contagious can be much worse, so in the near future, prevent access to dangerous viruses that may be intentionally released, and prevent accidental It is important to ensure that no .Esvelt suggests to accomplish this in the following way: Re-engineer a program that looks for incredibly contagious and deadly viruses Instead, work on preventing spillovers, Review research funding to ensure research that develops more deadly viruses is not funded, and screen DNA synthesis machines to make it harder to print your own deadly viruses at home.

These aren’t meant to be perfect solutions — even if they make it harder to release dangerous viruses, they won’t completely prevent lethal attackers — but they’ll definitely shield us from future pandemics. It buys you time to develop the technology that protects you. .

The next stage for Esvelt is detection. Develop better tools to identify the spread of new viruses. In the very early stages of an outbreak, such as when Covid first started spreading in China in late 2019, the virus can be contained with targeted measures. Things get even more difficult when it spreads around the world.

And even if it’s too late for early containment, detecting the virus early gives us an earlier time to develop effective countermeasures. Esvelt claims that one strategy can detect all biological threats. “A system that can detect exponentially increasing patterns of nucleic acid fragments should reliably detect any catastrophic biological threat,” he wrote.

The key is to capitalize on our growing capabilities Sequencing genetic material quickly and cheaplyWhatever form the biological threat may take, whether it’s DNA or RNA, if you notice an exponential increase in new types of nucleic acids, it’s a tip. Something growing exponentially. So you can monitor wastewater at critical locations such as airports and city centers to keep an eye on anything new and booming. Then we can take a closer look to understand what it is and how concerned we should be.

This ain’t cheap — except by comparison Pandemic costs lives and money, in which case it actually looks very cheap. “Building such an observatory seems very affordable compared to traditional defense budgets,” argues Esbert. “In the United States, a system performing untargeted metagenomic sequencing of wastewater from all 328 ports of entry could potentially operate at a cost of less than $1 billion per year. .”

What to do when a virus is detected

Suppose you build a wastewater screening system to detect a new, rapidly spreading virus. Then what? Here he argues that Esvelt needs to go back to basics. mRNA vaccines are an amazing life-saving technology, but simply cannot be produced on a large scale faster than the virus can spreadTherefore, PPE is required, ventilation is required, and good technology is required to disinfect the spaces where people need to work.

As we all know with the Covid pandemic, the problem with PPE is that it’s not enough and what we have is not good. It was almost impossible to get good quality masks in the early days of the pandemic, but quality masks are also very uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Cloth masks are more comfortable, but not good enough for highly contagious viruses.

However, more than two years into the Covid pandemic, we haven’t worked so hard to develop good, usable PPE.Imagine spending a fraction of your effort on better development electric air purifier respirator — The safest option for defense against viruses — Incorporated into the development of new mobile phones.

We need PPE innovation, but it’s not as scientific innovation as consumer product innovation. That means making the best of his PPE options wearable, robust in normal use, and widely available, rather than requiring full use. With this tool, we could face something more contagious and deadly than Covid, even before the first vaccine hits the assembly line.

“Combining a well-protected and trusted P4E in the hands of essential workers with a reliable early warning system can make nations virtually immune from pandemic-class pathogens,” writes Esvelt. increase.

where there is a will there is a way

Of course, all of these plans will likely encounter additional complications as they unfold. . But what his thinking makes clear is that a pandemic is a choice. That is what we as a society would choose if we weren’t willing to invest in pandemic preparedness.

For better or worse, we weren’t always sluggish in the aftermath of the catastrophe. After nearly 3,000 Americans died on 9/11, Expensive and tedious screening procedures To ensure that no one can hijack a plane at any airport in the United States, and at any international airport that sends flights to the United States. After Covid-19 killed more than a million Americans, we did little to prevent it from happening again with a new virus next week.

That’s a horrible mistake. But to say that we have the power to choose to stop it is a terrible mistake.

A version of this story first appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here to subscribe!

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