Plan now for next pandemic, BIO’s Phyllis Arthur tells UN preparedness panel

BIO's Phyllis Arthur speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2023

We need to make progress against the next pandemic, Phyllis Arthur, Senior Vice President of Infectious Diseases & Emerging Science Policy at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), told a Sept. 20 UN General Assembly panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.

The panel was part of the high-level meeting on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response at the UN General Assembly’s 78th session.

“The best outcome during an emergency comes from partnerships during the interpandemic period, when there is time to make thoughtful investments,” said Arthur during her opening remarks. The panel focused on “ensuring equity through capacity building for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response and harnessing timely, sustainable and innovative financing and investment.”

“Governments and stakeholders must work together to expand clinical trial networks, strengthen national regulatory capacity and harmonization, build stronger supply chains, and incentivize manufacturing across regions. Sustained public and private funding is essential for robust R&D. Government and industry should invest in new platform technologies and mechanisms for the development of vaccines and antivirals against the most important pandemic pathogens,” she said.

“In addition, governments, in partnership with manufacturers, should invest in geographically diverse regional manufacturing expansion during the period between pandemics. This will aid in the development of new technologies that could be rapidly deployed around the world,” continued Arthur.

Needless to say, the challenges of an international approach to pandemic preparedness are steep, but not insurmountable.

Preparedness through collaboration

The importance of R&D and equitable access were key themes from speakers representing UN member states, international non- and for-profit institutions, and international advocacy organizations representing healthcare workers, patients, economically vulnerable populations, and more.

“In order to ensure more equitable access to pandemic-related products, we have to think of this as an end-to-end ecosystem,” said the representative from Norway. “We have to consider the entire supply chain spanning from investments in R&D and procurement to delivering products to the population.” This includes “all relevant actors” from government, academia, industry, and international organizations. 

“Ensuring equitable access in pandemics to medical countermeasures such as vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics is a moral imperative,” noted the representative from the United Kingdom. “No one is safe until everyone is safe, and if we allow vulnerable populations to go without access to such countermeasures, we are creating the perfect conditions for pandemics to grow.”

But we need R&D to get there: “We learned from COVID-19 that investments in R&D offer the best hope for developing countermeasures to unknown pandemic threats,” she continued.

And we need public-private partnerships, said a representative from the Global Health Security Agenda. During COVID-19, “we saw businesses around the world collaborating with governments, nonprofit organizations, to rapidly develop needed vaccines, diagnostics treatments, deliver medical supplies, analyze data on vaccine distribution.”

The importance of holistic health strategies

Another impactful aspect was the conversation around holistic international health strategies.

“If you’re going to respond to a new blood-borne or sexually transmitted pathogen, you better be good at fighting HIV,” said a representative from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. “If you’re going to fight airborne diseases, such as COVID, you better be good at fighting tuberculosis. And if you’re going to encounter new vector-borne diseases transmitted by Anopheles Aedes or other disease vectors, you better have a strong malaria program that you can build upon.”

Here, too, public-private partnerships are key: “We also need to continue to work with communities and civil society, which I think do a better job talking about than governments, private sector, and other global health partners.”

BIO's Phyllis Arthur speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2023
BIO’s Phyllis Arthur speaking at the UN General Assembly on September 20, 2023

Caring for healthcare providers

This focus on holistic approaches to human health naturally led to conversations around care for healthcare professionals “the most limited resources,” said the representative from Mexico. “The existing gap and the inequities in terms of how they’re deployed, particularly in countries and areas within low and middle-income countries affects the most vulnerable of our citizens.”

The representative for the International Council of Nurses echoed this sentiment, warning, “The COVID-19 pandemic exacted a huge toll on the physical and mental health of health workers—infecting millions and causing the deaths of more than 180,000 of them. Workers experienced fear, exhaustion, moral injury, and illness which threatened their survival for more than two straight years. With a global shortage of 6 million nurses prior to the pandemic combined with the aging nursing population and excessive burnout and stress, the world could be facing a shortage of as high as 30 million nurses by 2030.”

The next steps for pandemic prep

The challenges of an international approach to pandemic preparedness are steep, but not insurmountable.

“I was very happy to hear so many organizations mentioned more engagement with the private sector,” said Arthur during her closing statement. “As well as, of course, governments, NGOs, and multilateral organizations.”

“This is really the best way to have the most improvement and strengthening of our pandemic preparedness globally,” she said

Arthur concluded by reinforcing two key points. First: “It’s extremely important that we build out the global biotech and biopharmaceutical networks that can do research around important viral diseases, respiratory diseases, tick-borne diseases, mosquito-borne diseases,” she said, to have a foundation for R&D.

“It’s extremely important that R&D takes place in collaboration between [equatorial] North and South companies, academic institutions, and multilateral organizations,” she explained. “And that must be done in a universe where there’s a strong regimen of intellectual property, and voluntary and strongly incentivized collaboration between companies, governments around the world to build that R&D platforms, but also geographically-diverse manufacturing that everyone so craves.”

This is already happening, but we need to do more: “Companies did over 400 volunteer licenses during COVID. But they could double or triple that as infrastructure gets built around the world.”

Second, financing should focus not only on R&D but also on procurement. As companies partner, they need to “know exactly where to go if there’s an emergency and actually make sure that they provide equitable and affordable access in a timely fashion,” Arthur continued. “I’m very pleased to hear how partnership models can actually make us more prepared globally in the future.”

Her second comment drove home the underlying thread of the discussion: action is needed quickly. Furthermore, action needs to involve the wide breadth of stakeholders equitably, and systems created need a degree of plasticity so they can be both robust and responsive to whatever pandemic descends in the future.

As Arthur demonstrated by her attendance at the hearing, the biotech industry is ready to help the world take action.

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