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Harvard Launches International Task Force to Prevent Future Pandemics

The School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute launched a task force last month with the mission of preventing future pandemics.
The School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute launched a task force last month with the mission of preventing future pandemics. By Zing Gee
By Ariel H. Kim and Anjeli R. Macaranas, Crimson Staff Writers

The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health and the Harvard Global Health Institute launched a task force last month with the mission of preventing future pandemics.

Led by Aaron Bernstein — interim director of Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School — the Scientific Task Force to Prevent Pandemics at the Source hopes to shift the focus of pandemic-related discussion from management and treatment to prevention, especially at the critical point where diseases transfer from animals to people.

“The reality is that right now, pretty much all the discussions about preventing the next pandemic are limited to after people get sick,” Bernstein said in an interview. “But there is an enormous hole in this approach, which is the reality that these emerging infections overwhelmingly come from a spillover of pathogens from wildlife to people sometimes through livestock.”

“If we fail to address that, then we can spend all the money we want on things that help us after people get sick — but they may not help much,” he added.

Spanning several continents, the task force consists of researchers in varying realms of scientific expertise, including environment, biomedicine, public health, and epidemiology.

Deborah T. Kochevar, a member of the task force and a former dean at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, noted the importance of having a diverse makeup of scientists on the task force.

“Because we come from different backgrounds and bring different perspectives, then I think we’ll be able to have insights that will be particularly helpful in terms of focusing on prevention of pandemics,” she said.

Recent research showed that investing in spillover prevention in the short term can save a significant amount of money in the future, according to Bernstein.

“We could spend somewhere around $20 to $30 billion a year to focus efforts in the places we have seen diseases emerge most often,” he said. “If we spent that amount every year for a decade, we would only have spent around one percent, maybe two, of the total cost of Covid-19.”

Task force member Guilherme L. Werneck, a professor of epidemiology at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, said the task force aims to use preventative planning to address the extended effects of pandemic on other issues such as environmental concerns, population movement, and poverty.

“For instance, if you prevent deforestation, you also affect climate change, so you’re not only preventing the next pandemic, but you’re also helping to improve our environment and our health in general,” Werneck said.

Bernstein said the task force aims to have a report evaluating the science around spillover and recommending actions to prevent spillover by the end of the summer. Once the report is complete, the task force will be working with government leaders as well as leaders from private and nonprofit sectors to ensure the report’s findings and recommendations are put to good use, he added.

The task force’s research will be translated into policy recommendations to inform global leaders’ discussions at two international conferences: the G20 Summit in October and the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties in November.

“These types of diseases, they don’t respect the borders of countries,” Werneck said. “Without multilateral collaboration, they are not going anywhere.”

—Staff writer Ariel H. Kim can be reached at ariel.kim@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Anjeli R. Macaranas can be reached at anjeli.macaranas@thecrimson.com.

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Harvard Medical SchoolSchool of Public HealthMedicineFront Middle FeatureCoronavirus