What world leaders must understand about microbes in a global pandemic

What world leaders must understand about microbes in a global pandemic
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The world juggled many issues as the United Nations General Assembly closed its 76th annual meeting. The half-virtual, half in-person format this year reflected the world’s perilous state as the COVID-19 pandemic grinds on.

In any other year, I would hesitate to thrust my two cents’ worth of opinion following this world leaders’ meeting, and my perspective on microbes likely wouldn’t be predominant information. But this year, a year and a half into a pandemic that has already taken more than 4.5 million lives worldwide, no nation and no person on Earth can afford to be unconcerned about microbes.  

If world leaders learn anything from the death, disruption and despair inflicted by this microbic pandemic, it is this: Our best responses have been global but our worst, narrowly nationalistic. Indeed, the world’s response to the menace of COVID-19 has been both inspiring and disastrous.

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While experts have long predicted the likelihood of a pandemic, the world paid no heed. Now we have seen firsthand how microbes can create havoc in ways that were unfathomable by most people just two years ago. We have also witnessed the power of science and how terrific innovations can save us. 

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we saw the opening of a newly globalized and interconnected world. That could have been an opportunity for addressing some of humanity’s most daunting problems — like crisis management, hunger, extreme poverty and climate change. The fall of ideology-trapped blocs brought a clearer vision for more transparent and equitable cooperation across sovereign nations. Then came 2020, and the pandemic showed us how difficult it is to govern in a deeply interconnected and global world. We were faced by a truly common enemy; a threat that should have transcended any ideological, geographical or parochial interest. But instead, we watched the spread of hit-or-miss nationalistic approaches to managing the pandemic that are now carrying over to vaccination programs.

It is tautologous that a pandemic needs a global response. How can we envision the curbing of dangerous SARS-CoV-2 variants when we have billions of unprotected people still waiting for a first dose of vaccine, while we discuss when to administer third doses to a few hundred million of the fortunate?

Let’s be plain: The more the virus circulates around the world, the more it will mutate. We do not know where dangerous variants will appear and how treacherous they may be. What we need now are stronger frameworks for action and rapid implementation of scientific innovations, which will ensure international collaboration when new variants or new pathogens arise. Designating implementation at the national level to solve global problems is like trying to fight a fire in just one room while the whole building is ablaze.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated that an investment of $50 billion in a global vaccination campaign would generate about $9 trillion of additional global output by 2025. Collapsing financial systems have been propped up in the past during times of global crisis — like the 2008 financial crisis — so why is it that we cannot find the cash to support a global vaccination program today? 

Here’s another example of the need for world leadership: We have a momentous opportunity before us now at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has significantly increased its Advanced Molecular Detection (AMD) program, a result of an unprecedented funding of over $1.75 billion. I applaud such visionary efforts and think the program will be executed effectively by ramping up the sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 variants and other pathogens through the power of “next-generation sequencing.” These new genetic technologies can rapidly identify novel viral strains, providing invaluable information for research, surveillance, and patient treatment.

However, if advanced programs such as AMD in the U.S. and programs in other “developed” countries remain national boutiques, they will not achieve the tremendous potential they can under global governance by experienced leaders. We do not know where variants will emerge, but we should know the dangers of searching only under lamp posts while ignoring the real dangers in the dark.

To monitor the microbial world, we need to look far beyond an incomplete circle of well-lit national sampling programs and limited international partnerships. What we need in place to continue fighting this pandemic and to be better prepared for the next is a global network of pathogen sequencing surveillance and diagnostic infrastructure.

This is an ambitious goal, but it has happened before, as accomplished with the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) or the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has been transformative for the clinical lab infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa.

So, as the global leaders go back to thinking about the state of their nations following the UN General Assembly, I urge world leadership to deploy science in the service of innovative solutions based on principles of equity and justice, and of access to health. This is globalization worth fighting for.

Stefano Bertuzzi, Ph.D. MPH, is the chief executive officer of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM), which aims to promote and advance microbial sciences. Bertuzzi has led ASM's efforts to address the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, including working directly with the White House COVID-19 Task Force, FDA and CDC to increase access to diagnostic testing supplies and addressing roadblocks to coronavirus testing. Bertuzzi has led the U.S. government negotiations with the European Union to achieve funding reciprocity between the NIH and the EU. He also worked with previous administrations to develop an information system to captures the benefits of scientific investments during the Great Recession of 2008.