Early Warning in Preventing Future Pandemics: Incredible Opportunity & Major Hurdles

Data will be one of the central components of preventing future outbreaks from growing to pandemic proportions. This holds for natural disease outbreaks and for deliberate biological attacks. Our tools and methods for collecting, analyzing, and using data are incredible and improving rapidly. Such capabilities have been put to productive use against COVID-19 by some countries, such as South Korea. Others, such as the United States, have been challenged by antiquated requirements surrounding data (e.g., some data must be shared by fax) and other major problems.

For continuing to combat COVID-19 and for the future, we face a stark conundrum. The nation is closer than ever to having the capabilities required for real-time early warning when biological threats emerge. Think of the power that could come from policy makers and responders having the data and analyses they need in time to prevent emerging diseases from causing mass effects. Think of individuals everywhere having information readily available and understandable in apps akin to those we have for weather maps. Yet despite this incredible potential—and the fact that we have the tech today to get there—the United States is devastatingly far from putting it to full use.

This divergence between our potential and current reality can be seen in regular news reporting now. Every week media outlets report on successes in incredible rates of data being leveraged to better understand how this novel coronavirus spreads, find vaccines and countermeasures, and much more. At the same time, basic data regarding COVID-19 such as accurate casualty rates are so poor that independent groups (such as The Atlantic’s Tracking Project) emerged to improve data collection and sharing.       

Today, CSR is releasing a Briefer titled “Pathogen Detection, Mapping and Early Warning: Opportunities & Obstacles on the Path Toward Preventing Future Pandemics,” which is a discussion recap of a virtual event we held on these issues in August 2020 with leaders from the public and private sectors (held under the Chatham House rule).

The good news is leaders in government, numerous companies, and academia are working hard on solutions to this problem set. But significant challenges remain in fully deploying the tools that are available today and in the works. One pressing concern is that we lack a single, trusted entity for bringing together, managing, and sharing the vast data we can now capture. This gap must be filled, as suggested by former U.S. Chief Information Officer DJ Patil in capturing lessons from COVID-19 responses in California, among other experts. It is unclear today whether the public or private sector, or some combination of both, would be the best fit to address this gap.

This question, and the need to finally meet the need for early warning of emerging biological threats, may not be resolved during the current pandemic. But that work must begin with urgency, both for mitigating further devastation from COVID-19 and in preventing future outbreaks from the level of destruction we see today—or significantly worse.


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