Nobody saw COVID-19 coming. In the early days of the pandemic, researchers scrambled to collect samples from people who had mysteriously developed fevers and coughs. Pretty soon, they realized that the culprit was a new virus. We hadn’t seen it before.
The world was unprepared. Some countries quickly developed tests for the virus. Countries with fewer resources were left behind. It became clear that the world would only weather this pandemic by working together. It also became clear that better monitoring of viruses was necessary to predict and detect future outbreaks.
On the Hunt
Abbott is a global healthcare company. In 2021, it started the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition. APDC is the first group of public-health and academic experts dedicated to fighting pandemic diseases that is led by a private company. It now comprises 15 members based in 12 countries. Its mission is to detect and share discoveries of new viruses, and contain them before it’s too late.
The experiment is just beginning. But it’s already paying off. APDC members were among the first people to spot several dangerous mutations of the COVID-19 virus just as they were emerging. This allowed countries to prepare.
Now the virus hunters are watching out not only for new versions of COVID-19 but for other disease-causing bugs. In June, monkeypox began infecting people around the world. APDC members researched it. They created a monkeypox test that researchers began testing to track the virus and help contain its spread.
Esper Kallas is a professor of infectious and parasitic diseases at the University of São Paulo. The university is an APDC member. “What I see is an effort to bring down scientific borders and increase communication across the globe,” he says.
The only way to be truly prepared for the next pandemic is to make groups like APDC the norm, Dr. Eric Topol says. He’s the director and founder of the Scripps Research Translational Institute. Groups like APDC “are essential for [disease] surveillance, testing, treatments, you name it,” Topol says. “We do better if [they] are working together.”
So far, APDC members have contributed to identifying three major COVID-19 variants. They did so by quickly putting lots of different people, all around the world, on the same urgent problem. “Each of us brings a different skill set,” Dr. Sunil Solomon says. He’s the director of YRG Care, an APDC member in Chennai, India.
Groups like APDC could serve as a model for setting up more-extensive networks of virus hunters. Sustaining them between public-health threats is one of the best ways to defend against the next big one. “Viruses move very fast,” says Gavin Cloherty, who leads APDC. “We also need to be moving very fast.”
This story was originally published in TIME on August 1, 2022.