As a part of Brown University’s 2023 Commencement weekend celebration, three faculty members of the Pandemic Center at Brown’s School of Public Health convened the forum, “Heightened Alert: Securing the World from the Next Public Health Catastrophe.” Jennifer Nuzzo, the center’s founding director, along with Beth Cameron and Wilmot James, two senior advisors and internationally recognized thought leaders in biosecurity, discussed the center’s efforts in preparing for the next infectious disease emergency.
“I can only imagine what some of you may be thinking,” said Ron Aubert, interim dean of the School, during his opening remarks. “The Covid emergency ended just a few weeks ago, and here we are already discussing the next catastrophe. However, there is no better time than the present to prepare ourselves, so that we can avoid the massive losses we experienced during the pandemic. We witnessed the loss of decades of gains in life expectancy within a matter of months. Trust and confidence in public health measures were eroded. Clearly, we must do better.”
The World Health Organization and the U.S. government have acknowledged that the crisis period for Covid is over, but this does not mean that the work is over. The panel members discussed their concerns and priorities for preparing for the next public health emergency.
“We need to focus on diagnostics,” said James, professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice at Brown. “This is a global problem. In Africa, we lacked an inter-agency response.”
Cameron, professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice, added, “In the U.S., we did have an inter-agency response, perhaps with too many versions of it, but we were unable to overcome fundamental challenges. While we managed to develop vaccines in record time, we need a global system to swiftly distribute them and ensure accessibility for low-income countries. Additionally, there was a lack of political will and accountability. We need heads of state to stand up fast during a global health crisis.”
Nuzzo noted that public health has always enjoyed bipartisan support, but during the COVID pandemic, unity was undermined by disinformation and polarization. She asked, “How can we move forward while acknowledging that support for public health is not at the level we had in the past?”
“It is a fundamental problem when politicians and policymakers fail to recognize the national interest,” James said. “Leadership entails navigating through a crisis. This includes government, private sector, and scientific leadership. I believe that science and healthcare workers rose to the occasion during COVID, but we need comprehensive leadership across the board.”
Cameron acknowledged that at the recent G7 conference in Hiroshima, Japan world leaders recognized these problems and made plans to address them. “The language used may not be as sharp as we would like,” she said, “but they are acknowledging the need for action. Reading the transcripts left me both happy and frustrated.”
Nuzzo asked the panel about the scenarios that keep them awake at night and how we can mitigate risk. She asked, “What gift can we give our future selves?”
“The pandemic was caused by a novel pathogen,” said James. “The reason it became a pandemic was because it was entirely new. So the best way to prepare for such a situation is to strengthen healthcare systems and utilize the best scientific practices to mitigate the threat.”