The COVID-19 pandemic changed the world. Nowhere was left untouched, from bereaved families to personal freedoms and global economies.
But it also changed the interaction between science and the public in a way that caught some by surprise. Scientists who had previously existed in a world of research and academia were suddenly thrust into the public eye and being asked to provide solutions for a frightening and fast-moving global crisis.
We have learned a lot from the pandemic, not only about how diseases like COVID spread but also about our own capability and capacity to respond.
The rapid development of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID vaccine, diagnostic tests, the RECOVERY trial, and contact tracing apps were only possible because of our extensive partnerships with other researchers, as well as with healthcare providers and industry partners across the UK and internationally.
It was these existing relationships, as well as the significant depth of our prior research into diseases like MERS, Ebola and influenza, that made such fast development of responses to COVID possible.
Last week the Pandemic Sciences Institute held its first annual International Pandemic Sciences Conference here in Oxford, where we welcomed more than 450 participants from 40 countries, representing scientists, ethicists, industry partners and funders who were deeply involved in developing the new approaches that were rapidly developed and deployed during the pandemic.
Getting people together to share the latest scientific breakthroughs is important, but just as crucial is providing an opportunity for people to meet face-to-face and build relationships. These relationships are the glue that will make the global response to the next pandemic faster, more efficient and more cohesive.
Learning from one another
The theme of the conference was ‘Making the Exceptional Routine’, which was to emphasise the fact that there is no room for complacency about future epidemic and pandemic threats. It is important that we continue to learn from one another and ensure that the exceptional ways of working that we developed quickly and under pressure over the past few years can become the new business as usual in pandemic sciences.
For the Pandemic Sciences Institute this means not only generating new understanding but also translating this knowledge into practical, real-world interventions such as diagnostics, vaccines and medicines. It also means considering the social, ethical and policy dimensions from the outset to ensure pandemic responses are acceptable, equitable and minimally disruptive.
With sufficient determination and resources, we know we can radically accelerate the development and implementation of interventions that benefit humanity.
But it is vitally important that we ensure that while encouraging academic excellence we also foster equitable partnerships to safeguard health and economic stability for future generations in every part of our world.
Professor Sir Peter Horby is Moh Family Foundation Professor of Emerging Infections and Global Health at the University of Oxford and the Director of the Pandemic Sciences Institute.