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Anticipating the inevitable: how prepared are we for the next pandemic?

  • 30 Apr 2024


BioMelbourne and mRNA Victoria symposium.

It's a sobering thought that another pandemic could emerge within our lifetimes.

One statistical model by Duke University estimates that a pandemic similar in scale to COVID-19 is likely within a span of 59 years.

However, there's a silver lining: the global community, including Australia, has taken significant strides in learning from past experiences to enhance our state of readiness like never before. 

Earlier this month, the Melbourne biotechnology community came together for a symposium hosted by BioMelbourne and mRNA Victoria, featuring preeminent specialists in epidemiology, vaccine development and infectious diseases.

The topic of the symposium was Australia's preparedness for potential pathogenic threats.

Burnet Director and CEO Professor Brendan Crabb AC moderated the panel. He highlighted that our primary goals in managing viral threats should be to sustain low disease incidence and minimise societal upheaval.

Reflecting on the global management of SARS-CoV-2, he said our global response to develop a vaccine in such a short period of time should be commended. But he said our response fell short when it came to vaccine distribution, which was not done equitably and was one of the reasons we were still living with the virus today. 

Professor Crabb said it was crucial to be better prepared to respond to future pathogenic threats, as was the need to place a stronger focus on equitable distribution of vaccines.

Moderna Senior Vice President of Infectious Diseases Jacqueline Miller shared her insights from lived experience in developing Moderna’s vaccine in the early days of the pandemic.

She said mRNA technology allowed a swift and adaptable response to vaccine development, outpacing traditional methods. mRNA therapies harness the body's own mechanisms to produce vital proteins, such as antibodies, and are delivered via a lipid nanoparticle to maintain stability of the mRNA and allow it to deliver its instructions within about 72 hours, before it degrades.

This approach is instrumental in swiftly generating vaccines for newly sequenced pathogens, with AI algorithms aiding in the creation of mRNA sequences that form the vaccine's formula.

Dr Miller said Moderna's collaboration work with the World Health Organization (WHO) on significant known threats, such as Zika, Nipah, mPox, novel influenza pandemics and others, ensured a robust foundation for a rapid response if any of these viruses were to emerge as endemic or pandemic threats.

Dr Miller also emphasised the potential of the mRNA technology platform to tackle imminent challenges posed by climate change, vector-borne diseases, the resurgence of enduring infections, the threat of antimicrobial resistance and novel pathogens with pandemic potential.

Dr Miller said Moderna’s strategic preparedness for pandemics involved building manufacturing capability around the world, with new facilities under construction in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, to address the supply chain and capacity issues experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She said this expansion, coupled with targeted programs for priority pathogens and its mRNA Access program, embodied the company’s commitment to being better prepared for future pathogenic threats.

Dr Miller said the mRNA Access program fostered global collaboration by allowing researchers to apply Moderna's mRNA technology to their investigations of emerging infectious diseases.

She said the involvement of Australian academic and research institutions, including the University of Queensland, the Burnet Institute and the Doherty Institute, in this initiative underscored the nation's growing prominence in mRNA research. 

University of Melbourne’s Professor Jodie McVernon, Director of Doherty Epidemiology at the Doherty Institute, highlighted the importance of global pathogen surveillance and information sharing for pandemic preparedness.

Her team’s work is aligned with regional and global initiatives to improve evidence synthesis and communication to support better decisions across all levels of society, from community to whole-of-government.

She said the COVID-19 pandemic taught us the value of disseminating public health information in ways that resonated with the community. She said ensuring access to clear and culturally sensitive information could help combat misinformation and enhance public health efforts to promote equity.

Professor McVernon said epidemiologists needed to consider the health and societal effects of both infectious diseases and interventions for their control in models of pandemic response.

She highlighted the 'Decision Science' framework of participatory decision-making, enabling ongoing integration of evidence in evolving situations to update recommendations for effective responses.

She said the proposed Global Pandemic Accord, which is currently being negotiated by WHO member states, aims to foster a unified approach, harmonising health, research, finance and transportation policies and promoting sharing of information and benefits, to establish a fairer and more effective global response to future pandemics.

While the prospect of a future pandemic is a daunting reality, the advances in medical science, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting spirit of international cooperation, have markedly improved our collective capacity to confront such challenges.