COVID-19 and beyond: World 'nowhere near' ready, expert says

GENEVA (AP) — A leading epidemiologist who heads a U.N.-backed alliance that helps get vaccines to developing countries said Friday the world is “nowhere near” proper readiness for outbreaks like the new coronavirus, insisting work is needed now to prepare for the next one.

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI-The Vaccine Alliance, noted studies alluding to the existence of more than 30,000 coronaviruses, and said outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic could well become more likely.

“With increasing population, with increasing environmental destruction, we are likely to see an accelerating rate of these types of outbreaks,” he said from GAVI headquarters overlooking Geneva.

“We are nowhere near where we need to be to be globally prepared for these types of outbreaks,” said Berkley, whose organization brings together industry, governments, United Nations agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF, and charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

With the SARS and MERS coronavirus outbreaks earlier this century, initial interest in developing vaccines amid those crises ended up waning when the outbreaks faded — and some worry about a repeat with the new coronavirus down the road. Berkeley hopes this time will be different.

“Given the magnitude of this outbreak, I would think it would be foolish for us not to complete vaccine development and make sure it was available for potential future outbreaks,” he said.

Berkley said the best way to prepare would be to create “platform technologies” — a buzzword for preparations to scale and manufacture vaccines into a “platform” into which new pathogens can be inserted to speed up response.

From early on in the outbreak that first emerged in China, the World Health Organization has expressed concern that the new coronavirus might spread in developing countries with weaker health systems. So far, it has mostly hit richer countries like China, South Korea and Japan, and increasingly Italy and other European countries. Developing countries haven’t had big outbreaks.

“It would be a fool’s errand if we assumed that in fact, it’s not going to go to these places,” Berkley said, adding that epidemiology shows fast-moving outbreaks often “settle” in locations with weaker health systems.

He said 27 GAVI countries have recorded at least one case, and some have clusters, raising questions about whether testing abilities, weather, the age of population — mostly younger in those countries — or some other factor may be slowing the emergence of COVID-19 in those places.

“It may be that by the time we see a larger outbreak in developing countries — if we do — we will have better and more rapid tools and test kits, and maybe a better understanding of therapeutics, or even other ways to deal with this,” he said. “That’s my hope.”