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Preparing for the next pandemic

The lessons from the past have an impact on today’s research, but also influence the direction of tomorrow. This message resonates with the theme of the Annual Scientific Meeting 2023 of the Netherlands Centre for One Health (NCOH) which took place at the Geertekerk in Utrecht: ‘Are we ready for the next pandemic?’ Annemarie Rebel (Wageningen University & Research) opened the event on behalf of NCOH’s Executive Board: “There are future challenges that we need to be prepared for. We must work together and involve young scientists in the process.”

This year, the ASM was jointly organised by Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht and moderated by Lidwien Smit (UU) and Marc Bonten (UMC Utrecht).

The lecture of Marc Bonten (UMC Utrecht) marked the beginning of the many interesting talks and discussions of this year’s NCOH Annual Scientific Meeting. Bonten said: “The question we are trying to answer is whether we are ready and prepared for the next pandemic. We must be better prepared next time, whenever that may be.”

NCOH has developed a one-year preparedness programme funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development (ZonMw). “It is crucial to conduct clinical research during outbreaks,” Bonten also explained: “Big clinical trials are needed to investigate different treatments”. His talk sparked an interesting discussion afterwards. Using the microphone cushion that was thrown into the public, everyone could participate and ask their questions.

Behavioural and social sides of the pandemic

To prepare for a future pandemic, we must not solely focus on the biomedical perspective of the pandemic, but also consider the behavioural and social side.

“In the past, social and behavioural sciences were not included in the corona policy making process,” Marijn de Bruin (Radboudumc & RIVM) said.

“To ensure accessibility to healthcare and keep the society open, you have to manage behavioural factors (such as washing hands) and build trust in the government.” He also shed light on the negative societal and personal impact of the pandemic.

De Bruin: “I envision a role for behavioural and social sciences in the process of policy making in preparation for the next pandemic.”

Spread of the pandemic through airborne transmission

Patricia Bruijning (UMC Utrecht) and Inge Wouters (Utrecht University) highlighted the role of airborne transmission in pandemics caused by respiratory viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

“Airborne transmission, spread through aerosols, is really challenging to study. Ethically, you cannot perform controlled infection experiments with people”, Bruijning explained.

Wouters added: “Although we do not have empirical evidence for airborne transmission in SARS-CoV-2, we still think it is likely that it played a role. Our findings contain elements that contribute to our understanding of the presence of viruses.”

A changing bioeconomy and ‘new’ balances

In the spirit of One Health (the main aim of NCOH), Bieneke Bron (Wageningen University & Research) emphasised that there are also other factors that impact the spread of infectious diseases. “The pandemic made it clear for me that food systems and human health are interconnected. Disease outbreaks affect food security, which in turn impacts health.”

Bron suggested that with increased circularity in our bioeconomy, we need to look to robust farms and food system resilience to limit the risks of pathogen emergence and spread. She ended her talk with a positive note: “On a global scale, we are facing some big challenges, but it also gives us the opportunity to develop creative solutions.”


Nine lessons from the COVID pandemic

Different aspects of preparation for a next pandemic were covered in the final talk of the day, a keynote lecture from Mark Woolhouse (University of Edinburgh, UK).

He shared his nine lessons from the COVID pandemic, that could help us prevent to make the same mistakes in the future:

  1. We need to re-assess preparedness and vulnerability. “We thought we were prepared for the pandemic; however, we need to better assess possible predictors.”
  2. Don’t only prepare for the pandemic we’ve previously had.
  3. Communication is important.
  4. Plan to mitigate harms of response: “the lockdown was a failure of public health strategy as there was educational and economical harm and mental health and well-being were impacted.”
  5. Acting quickly is the key: “early intervention is a way to prevent a lockdown.”
  6. Responses must be effective, proportionate and sustainable.
  7. Plan to rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions for more than 100 days.
  8. Nurture a broad science base: “Not only the biological sciences saved life, but also clinical medicine, epidemiology and behavioural-and data science.”
  9. Plan information flows and data pipelines.

Mark Woolhouse ended his talk with an additional 10th lesson: “Don’t dither and don’t panic!”

Closing of the day

After Woolhouse’s impressive talk, all attendants voted for their favourite PhD pitch. Marina Meester (WUR & Utrecht University), with her compelling pitch about Hepatitis E virus prevention in pig herds, won the NCOH Pitch Award 2023. We will all remember that compartmentation is key to prevent the spreading of this virus, congratulations Marina!

Before concluding the Annual Scientific Meeting 2023 with closing drinks and the atmospheric jazz tunes from BombaNaranja, the Young NCOH Board had organised a speed dating session. This provided opportunities for all attendants to connect with fellow researchers. And at the end of the day, these collaborations can help us in advancing our research for One Health: to make connections, work together and combine our efforts!