Looking Back, Moving Forward: Defending Global Health
Anniversaries serve as a moment to reflect on life’s milestones, whether those milestones be personal, professional or global.
But they also serve as an opportunity to look forward and examine how we can build upon what we’ve experienced to improve in the years ahead.
For many, March marks the anniversary of an event that not only changed the world, but the trajectory of many lives.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization’s Director-General classified COVID-19 as a pandemic.
Abbott scientists had been on the front lines since sequences were made available in early 2020 and their work helped us develop and deploy more than a billion tests globally to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Though, that’s not the beginning nor the end of our infectious disease story.
A Look Back
Building on nearly 30 years of history in hunting both new and evolving viruses like HIV and hepatitis, Abbott Virus Hunters sprang into action against COVID-19 knowing that the world needed diagnostic solutions.
Their sequencing work and dedication to accuracy and precision helped Abbott’s research and development teams as we launched 12 tests for SARS-CoV-2 across the globe* in one year, ranging from molecular to antigen to antibody.
Still, viruses never stop. There was more work to be done.
Within a few decades, Duke’s Global Health Institute estimates that novel disease outbreaks will likely increase three-fold, driven by globalization, population growth and closer contact between humans and animals.
As our Virus Hunters know, the next pandemic is only a plane ride away. It became clear that, to prevent history from repeating itself, global collaboration was necessary.
That’s why, on March 11, 2021, they launched the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition — a first-of-its-kind, industry-led global scientific network dedicated to the early detection of, and rapid response to, future pandemic threats — to stay a step ahead of known and emerging viruses and variants, including SARS-CoV-2.
The Coalition comprises 14 entities, including scientific and public health organizations on five continents actively identifying, analyzing, tracking and testing viral threats.
“Fighting pandemics is a team effort,” said Dr. Gavin Cloherty, head of infectious disease research at Abbott and head of the Coalition. “It takes a dedicated team with a comprehensive, actionable plan to ensure that the global health community is two steps ahead of the next pandemic.”
In its first year, that plan proved that connected research across borders is feasible and beneficial. The Coalition:
- Identified new lineages of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Senegal to understand the virus’s mutations over time.
- Ensured that Abbott’s molecular, antigen and serological tests detect SARS-CoV-2 variants.
- Looked at immune systems after vaccination to gain insight and better understand vaccination’s effects in COVID-19 recovery.
- Analyzed the capabilities of fingerstick dried blood samples for SARS-CoV-2 antibody testing.
- Recognized the migration patterns of people and analyzed the subsequent movement of hepatitis C in target populations in India.
- Taught Pandemic Defense Coalition trainees about sequence analysis in a series of virtual courses led by KRISP and CERI.
- Uncovered notable picobirnavirus lineages in Colombia that warrant further exploration into its role in respiratory infections, its probability of spreading in populations and its potential reclassification.
Viruses are constantly evolving. Our Coalition must do the same.
What We’re Looking At
Today, Coalition partners are on the ground collecting, logging and monitoring diverse pathogens – from the rainforests in Colombia, Brazil and Thailand, to the expansive savannas of South Africa, to the metropolitan areas of India and the U.S. to keep pace with new and changing viruses.
They’re working with healthcare professionals to catch viral threats before they reach levels of concern. If a person presents with an unknown illness that can’t be identified with current tests, the healthcare provider shares patient samples so they can be screened. That screening helps identify a virus as known or unknown. If it’s unknown, it kicks off a process in which a prototype diagnostic test can be developed for the global health community to facilitate broader research and viral monitoring.
As these unknown threats become more common, we’ll need more eyes on the ground. That’s why Abbott and the Coalition are committed to growing and supporting the world’s ranks of Virus Hunters.
The WHO recommends a ratio of one field epidemiologist for every 200,000 people. Only a fraction of countries have met that goal.
To help train the Virus Hunters of tomorrow, the Coalition is partnering with the Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Intervention Network (TEPHINET) which is already training field epidemiologists in more than 100 countries. “We're excited to work alongside the Pandemic Defense Coalition, especially since Abbott is our first-ever industry partner who is supporting continued education for field epidemiologists,” said Dr. Carl Reddy, director of TEPHINET. “Strengthening the public health workforce is important to ensure consistent quality and standards as we collaboratively work towards preventing the next pandemic.”
Our fellowship programs ensure that these scientists have the latest training and access to expert mentors to support virus discovery efforts and build local scientific infrastructure to ultimately gain better insight into current and future viral threats.
Looking to the Future
Going forward, the Coalition will continue its surveillance, research and diagnostic test development to help stop the next pandemic in its tracks. Our ongoing infectious disease research will help the world better target and address existing threats from SARS-CoV-2 as well as hepatitis, HIV, viruses native to certain geographies and those we don’t know about yet.
“We know that viruses adapt over time, but scientists are highly adaptable too,” said Dr. Mary Rodgers, principal research scientist at Abbott. “From SARS-CoV-2 to HIV, scientists are prepared to meet the unpredictable nature of virus surveillance every day.”
As the Coalition expands, analysis of infectious diseases around the world will continue, and educational opportunities for current and future virus hunters will be supported. We’re ready for the next milestone: shaping a world where scientific and public health experts can confidently and rapidly respond to infectious disease threats.
As the world learns to move forward, the question of how to ensure we’ll never have to endure this again will linger.
The answer lies in acting now.
Viruses move fast. To prevent the next pandemic, we must move faster.
We intend to do just that.
*Note: Abbott SARS-CoV-2 tests are subject to local regulatory and commercialization requirements.