By Judith Fales

How prepared are we for the next major public health threat? What did we learn from the pandemic that will help us respond more quickly to that next threat? I recently attended a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discussion on Preventing the Next Pandemic; New Tools for Global Surveillance, in which the panelists noted how far we have come, and what more we need to do.

Wall Street Journal Global Health Reporter Betsy McKay was the moderator. Satchit Balsari of the Chan School, Alexandria Boehm of Stanford University, Marc Lipsitch, Chan School Professor of Epidemiology, and Sikhulile Moyo, Laboratory Director of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, were the panelists.

The panelists identified systems currently in place that will enable us to respond more quickly to a future threat.

Wastewater monitoring. Wastewater monitoring helps us detect the presence of infectious diseases, including COVID, polio, and monkeypox. People infected by diseases shed parts of the virus when using toilets and showers, and just one test can capture up to one million people, enabling data sharing with public health.

Disease presence technology. Determining the extent of disease within a specific population helps develop an appropriate response. Such technology consists of a mobility network using data from phones. Privacy rules are in place to secure people’s private health status.

Genomic sequencing. Sequencing samples from wastewater and other sources makes it possible to identify the location of specific viruses. It also helps determine the presence of variants to create vaccines to target them.

The Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. Created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the center collects data to help make more informed public health decisions. For instance, does it make sense to close schools or businesses? Does it make sense to restrict travel in affected geographic locations?

$100 Million Contribution. A donation by the World Bank to the Africa Centres for Disease Control will strengthen public health preparedness in Africa.

The panelists agreed that the U.S. needs to do more.

Better training for students. Students obtaining Public Health degrees must learn how to decipher data from wastewater samples.

Trusted communication. The CDC needs to be faster in disseminating information to all levels of society.

Global participation in information sharing. Creating regional hubs will enable faster response to diseases.

Continued funding. If funding continues, accurate analysis of wastewater samples can be obtained in one week, which will help create more effective vaccines in just 100 days.