The Covid-19 pandemic is preparing us for future crises

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The SNSF Corona Research Conference shows how the Covid-19 pandemic has enabled us to accumulate knowledge that will be useful in dealing with future crises.

"If we ever have to deal with a new pandemic in future we will not be starting from scratch, as was the case when we were confronted with the coronavirus." These are the words of scientist Barbara Rath. As an active participant in the Vienna Vaccine Safety Initiative (Austria) and a member of the Steering Committee of the National Research Programme "Covid-19" (NRP 78), she was talking during the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) scientific conference on coronavirus research, which was attended by over 250 scientists in Thun at the end of March. Its objective: to discuss the lessons learned from the pandemic and the challenges to be faced in the future.

The main lesson is simple: although Covid-19 took us by surprise, the resulting pandemic was not completely unpredictable. At least this was the conclusion of the Danish epidemiologist Lone Simonsen, director of the pandemic research centre at Roskilde University, who looked back on the pandemics of the last 100 years.

Progressing in waves, like flu

So how did this particular virus of the coronavirus family succeed in spreading through the population, whereas Sars-Cov in 2003 and Mers-Cov in 2012, two other viruses from the same family, were quickly eradicated? The scientist explains: "Covid-19 was already contagious two days before symptoms appeared, and some people didn't even experience any symptoms, which promoted the rapid explosion of cases." Another aggravating factor was that the airborne transmission of the virus was not clearly communicated from the start.

The monitoring authorities and scientists were also surprised because they were expecting an influenza-type virus – the flu virus. In fact, as the researcher reminded us, the pandemics that emerged over the past 100 years – Spanish influenza in 1918, Asian flu in 1957, Hong Kong flu in 1968 and swine flu (H1N1) in 2009 – all involved influenza-type viruses.

On the other hand, Covid-19 does resemble previous pandemics in several respects. For example, like them it progressed in waves. It will also doubtless end up becoming endemic and manifesting itself in the form of a seasonal virus. Nevertheless, some unknowns remain when it comes to Covid-19, for example, we are still ignorant about various aspects of long Covid, Lone Simonsen recalls.

From coronavirus to rheumatic diseases

Although the management of the Covid-19 pandemic has benefited from the experience acquired during previous pandemics, there are also lessons to be learned from management of the pandemic itself and from the results of scientific research. NRP 78, the Special Call on Coronaviruses and, shortly, NRP 80, will produce a wealth of information in various domains: knowledge of the virus and its modes of transmission, strategies for fighting the disease or for managing patients. Over the past three years or so, for example, scientists have learned more about diagnosing Covid-19 and predicting its course thanks to artificial intelligence – such information could also be applied to other types of illnesses, including rheumatic diseases. Other research has shown that reducing contacts among adults and the elderly was not sufficient to control an epidemic such as Covid-19, but that reducing by half the contacts among the whole population, including children, was beneficial.

And that's not all: effective crisis management depends not only on scientific knowledge. For example, several conference speakers talked about the need for the federal and cantonal systems to be prepared and capable of reacting quickly and consistently. Because the next crisis may not necessarily involve a coronavirus. It might be caused by an as yet unknown virus about which we have no knowledge. It could also be a climate-related or financial crisis.

First interdisciplinary conference organised by SNSF

During the SNSF Corona Research Conference, the scientists working on the Special Call on Coronaviruses, launched in March 2020 and on National Research Programme "Covid-19" (NRP 78), launched in April 2020, reviewed their research. The Conference also served as a platform for launching National Research Programme "Covid-19 in Society" (NRP 80), whose aim is to understand the social dimensions of the Covid-19 pandemic and develop knowledge that would be useful in the management of future pandemics.