If you thought that the Covid-19 pandemic was a black swan event, Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent for CNN and neurosurgeon, has some bad news for you. “We are entering a pandemic era,” Gupta told audience members at the Modex 2022 keynote presentation on Tuesday.
As humanity encroaches on more and more environments, there will be more interactions between pathogens and humans, Gupta explained to DC Velocity’s Group Editorial Director Emeritus Mitch Mac Donald, who moderated the keynote session. Most of the time, those interactions will be innocuous, Gupta said, but every now and then it could spark an outbreak.
The good news, however, is that it is possible to be “pandemic proof,” says Gupta. The key is to use the learnings from this pandemic to help anticipate and prepare for the next. Gupta used the example of Hong Kong, which was hit hard by the SARS outbreak in 2003. When Covid-19 emerged, Hong Kong immediately went into protective mode, implementing social distancing, aggressive contact tracing, testing, and screening. Those moves help Hong Kong to initially avoid a lockdown and kept cases relatively low in 2020. (The city has since been hit hard by the Omicron variant earlier this year.)
The keynote was conducted as a conversation between Gupta and Mac Donald, held on the main stage at industry association MHI’s biennial supply chain trade show in Atlanta. Mac Donald launched the session by asking Gupta if we can finally put the Covid-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror.
“That question is really more of a philosophical one than a science one,” said Gupta. The answer depends on how much risk and lethality society is willing to tolerate, he said. “The flu currently kills 60,000 people per year, and we tolerate that as a society,” Gupta said. “It doesn’t need to be that high, we have just come to accept it.”
A similar decision will need to be made in terms of Covid. On the plus side, we now have a better idea of how the virus is transmitted and how to defend against it, said Gupta. Additionally, the development of the Covid vaccine was a significant scientific development.
“[As a result,] we can do events like this one,” said Gupta.
Whether we truly can become protected from future pandemics, however, will depend on human nature and how long our memories are, Gupta asserted. In fact, during George W. Bush’s administration a pandemic preparedness plan was developed to make the country pandemic proof. The plan involved funding people to serve as “virus hunters” searching for new diseases, testing in the field, maintaining a national strategic stockpile, and working to develop a universal vaccine. The plan carried a cost of $20 to $30 per citizen.
“We did have proactive thinking,” said Gupta, “But it is human nature to grow lax as time goes on.”
Gupta was clear that the healthcare supply chain will play a crucial role in whether or not we can reach his dream of becoming pandemic proof. One clear priority is to diversify sourcing and increase redundancy. As examples of the lack of diversity, Gupta pointed to the fact that there are only two nasal swab manufacturers in the world, 80% of raw ingredients for most medicines come from China and India, and 80% of surgical masks are made in China.
“We need to start rewarding risk mitigation,” he said. “In the past, we had been all about reducing redundancy.”
While much remains unclear about how to incentivize for risk and what measures will best protect us from future pandemics, there is one thing that is certain, according to Gupta: Our success will depend on collaboration and a commitment to serving the wider community.
“Our survival as a species will never come through rugged individualism,” he said. “It will only come through reciprocal altruism.”