Novel coronavirus: Are we ready?

Professor Dame Anne Johnson FMedSci is Vice President, International at the Academy of Medical Sciences and is Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology. She took part in an Academy Global Challenges Research Fund event on epidemic preparedness in October 2019. The event report is available to download from this page.

As headlines broadcast the news that the first cases of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) have been confirmed in the UK, many will be asking how prepared we are for this outbreak.

Our public health system is well prepared for outbreaks of novel infectious agents, but each presents new challenges for clinical management and controlling the spread of infection.

Academy Fellows step up 

Despite much effort in the UK and internationally to prepare for and mitigate the impact of outbreaks, the early stages of any new outbreak are always characterised by a number of uncertainties - what is its source of the infectious agent and how is it transmitted? What is the range and severity of clinical disease? How can it be best controlled?  How are risks and uncertainties best communicated to the public in a balanced way so that any precautions are appropriate and timely and unfounded anxieties allayed?

In a climate of uncertainty, it is only too easy for fear to dominate at a time when rapid but proportionate responses are essential alongside timely collection of key and representative scientific and clinical data to inform response. So I am pleased on behalf of the Academy that so many Fellows and early career researchers have been dropping everything to gather and review data, assess likely epidemic trajectories, give evidence based comments to news media, and share these on social media.  And many are contributing to the national and international research and policy response.

Organisations, such as the UK Science Media Centre, are also working to ensure that the UK news media has access to high quality experts in infectious disease and public health. We would encourage our Fellows and early career researchers to contact them to assist media work if they work in a relevant area and feel able to contribute to informed reporting. Our press office is happy to support any media work taken on by our Fellows or grant awardees.

When outbreaks occur that represent a significant threat to global health it is vital that researchers, journals and funders ensure that research findings and data relevant to the outbreak are shared rapidly and openly to inform the public health response and help save lives. That is why we, along with over 60 other organisations have reaffirmed a commitment to the principles set out in the 2016 Statement on data sharing in public health emergencies

International collaboration

All science is a global endeavour. This is especially true for global health security, and indeed, this a field where the stakes could not higher. So as we leave the European Union we must continue to stay closely connected to key organisations such as ECDC and the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) as well as to international organisations such as the World Health Organisation. 

Tackling epidemics must be a global effort, involving multidisciplinary research teams working across borders and with policy makers, healthcare systems and other sectors of society.

This was one of the major themes of our meeting on epidemic preparedness held in October 2019 as part of our Grand Challenges Research Fund policy programme funded by the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). The meeting was in partnership with the MRC and the InterAcademy Partnership and the report is available to download from this page.

Attendees at the GCRF meeting reviewed the progress in developing global networks for epidemics, which followed previous epidemics such as SARS and Ebola. The World Health Organisation International Health Regulations (2005) provide a global framework to detect, prevent and respond to infectious disease outbreaks. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI) has also been created to accelerate the development of new vaccines against priority infectious diseases. And there are networks to promote cross country and multidisciplinary collaboration, such as Sonar-Global that links social science researchers with interests in infectious disease and outbreak control.

Responding on all fronts

Much attention is rightly given to the development of new drugs and vaccines during major outbreaks. But it is equally important to invest in understanding the effectiveness of key public health interventions, and in robust assessment of parameters of epidemic spread alongside intelligence on key drivers such as social and political factors and human behaviour. Control is critically dependent on developing rapid diagnostics and optimising surveillance methods and international data sharing.

We are pleased to see the announcement of £10 million from the Wellcome Trust to accelerate research into novel coronavirus, funding that has the potential to make significant impact not only to this outbreak but to future outbreaks and global security more generally.

We must use experience from previous outbreaks and gather rapid and robust intelligence about the factors involved in this outbreak to inform our global response.  Global viral epidemics have a long history which can shape our preparedness. The Academy’s 2005 report on pandemic influenza and the 2007 follow up give us insight from different viral outbreaks. More recently, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and ebola outbreaks allowed us to learn valuable lessons about preparedness and response.

To the future

 Infectious disease outbreaks are inevitable, yet each outbreak can teach us valuable lessons for both the present and the future. However, we can only learn these lessons if we can gather robust evidence and undertake essential research and clinical trials – work which is challenging in the face of the pressures of urgent clinical and public health decisions. Such research must also be conducted in a way that is ethical and we would signpost everyone involved to the Nuffield Council for Bioethics report on this subject.

And we will need to reflect on whether globally we have invested enough in preparedness. In September last year, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board concluded in their first annual review, finding that global actions are still dominated by responses to outbreaks and there is too little investment in preparedness.

We must heed this warning and use what we learn during the coronavirus outbreak to continue to invest in international preparedness as a first line defence to global pandemics.

The Academy of Medical Sciences’ mission is to advance biomedical and health research and its translation into benefits for society. To find out more about our work visit our about us section or click here to find out about how to support the work of the Academy.  To find out more about our work under the Grand Challenges Research Fund, please visit our dedicated page


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