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How This Last Year Can Help In Preparing For The Next Pandemic

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)


Although it may seem like the coronavirus came out of nowhere, we'd been warned.


PRESIDENT GEORGE W BUSH: If we wait for a pandemic to appear, it will be too late to prepare. And one day, many lives could be needlessly lost because we failed to act today.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have to put in place an infrastructure not just here at home, but globally that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly.

CORNISH: President George W. Bush from 2005 and President Obama in 2011 - and our next guest says, really, we've just been lucky.

DANTE DISPARTE: When it comes to novel infectious diseases, we often have many, many near misses - coronaviruses, SARS, MERS, let's not forget the Ebola outbreak not long ago either.

CORNISH: That's Dante Disparte. He's a member of FEMA's National Advisory Council. We spoke earlier about how the U.S. might prepare for the next outbreak.

DISPARTE: Well, here is one of the more insidious aspects of this crisis and, I hope, one of the lessons we take forward. You cannot install a smoke detector in your house when the house is on fire. And so both for the testing bottlenecks and the scientific bottlenecks even till now, so much of the data that we rely on - on the overall figures and the infection rate and the confirmed, you know, cases - is backward looking. We don't have real-time reporting. We don't have tools in the hands of people for contact tracing that are trusted and that are technology-driven. So my hope really on the other side of this is that these types of capabilities become trusted and become ubiquitous.

CORNISH: Is part of the problem that we haven't understood what department of the government or who should really be tackling this? Meaning, is it biodefense? Is it in the context of bio weaponry and terrorism, or is it in the context of pandemic and illness? Is it in the context of climate change, and the idea of fueling pandemics? To me, it seems like we don't quite know who should be taking care of this, and maybe that's why no one has really been taking care of it.

DISPARTE: No question. And this gets to the question about we're as good as the weakest link in this one and not only as a country, but as a planet. That something that manifested itself more than a year ago in a village in China now suddenly brought the entire world economy to its knees, this is as much a public health and global public health emergency as it is a household one. And so many people are relegated to making decisions that would be typical of a doctor - the Hippocratic type of decision making. If I go outside, do I imperil people? If I don't go outside, will I be able to make enough money to eat? So this is a whole of society risk.

CORNISH: You talked about rebuilding institutions. Can you give some examples?

DISPARTE: Well, what's clear is that coming into this, science and data did not have the loudest seat at the table. We saw it a lot, and we still see it today with hesitancy on the vaccine, with misinformation and disinformation spreading rampantly around the world, even mask wearing. When the 21st century saw its first pandemic, the simplest remedies were 4- or 500 years old - social distancing, quarantine, hygiene and mask wearing. And yet, even on those very simple personal choices, we saw a lot of misinformation.

And so restoring institutional trust, giving science the loudest seat at the table and getting accurate information to people in real time from authorities they trust is going to help us. But it's about social conformity and compliance with those rules. That will make a big difference moving forward as well.

CORNISH: How do your suggestions not end up in a drawer again or at the bottom of a budgetary discussion? Because when I hear the voices of presidents through the years referring to this as a concern, somehow it doesn't match what we experienced last year.

DISPARTE: If there's anything I would like to say on this broadcast today, it is that this is not the last of the major global new health events that we will see. But so many of the remedies for the next pandemic will rely on exactly what we had to do to put, you know, the COVID pandemic in check.

CORNISH: Dante Disparte, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DISPARTE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.