Preparing for the next pandemic: Five things we learned from Sir Patrick Vallance

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

Sir Patrick Vallance on how we're preparing for the next pandemic.

Ahead of June's G7 summit of rich countries, we sat down with the government chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance, to talk about how to prepare for the next pandemic.

He's using the UK's presidency of the G7 to drum up interest in a "Pandemic Preparedness Partnership" designed to make the world better prepared for another pandemic - or subsequent waves of this one.

Here are some key headlines.

1. It should be possible to speed up making new pandemic vaccines from around 300 days (which is what it took to develop Covid vaccines) to 100 days. 

Sir Patrick told us: "Preparedness means things like strengthening healthcare systems, public health systems and absolutely needs a surveillance system in place. So those things are absolute critical foundational.

"But then there's a whole question of how do you get vaccines therapeutics, diagnostics ready. And if you think about this pandemic, it's taken us, you know, roughly 300 days to get to all of those things being in place at scale, a bit quicker for some and a bit slower for others.

"What would happen if you could make that 100 days? It would make a huge difference to how you tackled any future pandemic so that's the challenge really."

2. Red tape and supply chains held up testing for Covid - this needs fixing

Sir Patrick told us the delay in testing needs to be fixed for future pandemics.

One way to do that is to find things to test for while there isn't a pandemic going on so that diagnostic capacity is up and ready to go when disaster strikes.

We asked the health expert to single out one of "one of those sort of mundane obstacles that really did delay our efforts."

Testing, for example, the diagnostics capability was there straightaway but our ability to scale it took forever.

"Diagnostics is a great example. And there are different things for diagnostic, therapeutics and vaccines one needs to think about but for diagnostics, the regulatory process is not what it should be," Sir Patrick said.

"On day one, it’s not clear which of these things really work and what do we mean by work? You know, it's not that the laboratory test, and they're all done differently.

"What are the use cases for diagnostics that will tell you how to use them in practice, those things were not in place, and the regulatory system is one of the areas for diagnostics that you'd like to have in a much better shape than it was this time round.

"And the second thing for diagnostics would be, can we use them more during normal times?"

3. It's hard to prevent a pandemic happening if you can't see one coming - that means a surveillance system.

Friday saw the World Health Organization and the Wellcome Trust propose a "Global Pandemic Radar" - a network of surveillance hubs which can sample and test for new emerging pathogens.

A surveillance system could help us see the next pandemic before it hits.

"This all starts with surveillance and so we've got to have a world class surveillance system," Sir Patrick said.

"We've got systems, so flu has a system that picks up flu around the world and predicts next year what the vaccine needs to be like. We need an enhanced version of that for all future pandemics that can sample and detect things.

"A surveillance system that then also links clearly to things like genomic surveillance, to understanding the pathogen itself, through to what are called predictive vaccinology so you can actually get an early warning of this."

4. Any system has to be flexible.

The chief scientist told us that while everyone predicted Covid would mutate, no one thought it would evolve as quickly as it has to become more infectious.

I asked if he was surprised by Covid's ability to vary? 

"I'm not surprised that it's got mutations. I mean every virus as it replicates will acquire mutations and, of course, what a virus will try and do is optimise itself," he said.

"And what it’s optimising for is transmission at the moment. And so that's not a surprise.

"I think it is doing it faster than people thought a coronavirus would do it in this way. So it's definitely happening a bit more than people thought. And of course that's being fuelled by where we've got very big outbreaks in the world.

"The bigger the outbreak, the more the chances of having a variant that then sees an opportunity to be better than its predecessor. And that's really what we're seeing and that’s why keeping rates down everywhere is so important."

5. We have to learn from our failure to prepare for extreme but rare events in the past.

Once events like pandemics pass, energy and money moves on to other things. We saw this in the UK with our spent PPE stockpile.

Sir Patrick says: "One of the risks of all of these things is there’s a huge interest in this now. There may not be a huge interest in it in three years’ time.

"We’ve got to make this sustainable."

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