Coping With COVID-19 and Future Pandemics

October 06, 2020
Transatlantic Task Force
6 min read
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the mutual vulnerability to and the lack of preparedness for the spread of catastrophic infectious diseases in Europe and the United States.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the mutual vulnerability to and the lack of preparedness for the spread of catastrophic infectious diseases in Europe and the United States. Millions of people have been infected and hundreds of thousands have died. Around the world, countless more will perish before this disease is halted by the development of therapeutics and a vaccine.

Coping with the current health crisis has proven an unprecedented challenge. Numerous governments imposed stay-at-home orders and closed all nonessential workplaces, leading to the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Among other nations, France, Germany, Poland, and Spain closed their borders; the European Union barred American travelers from entering its member states; and the United States banned travel to and from high risk regions.

The response in Europe and the United States has often been slow, inadequate, and nationalistic; Americans and Europeans have often worked at cross purposes, lacking any coordinated action. This was particularly evident as domestic demand grew for medical supplies. The European Commission initially imposed restrictions on protective face shields and visors and mouth-nose protection equipment that previously went to the United States.7 The United States later announced it would leave the World Health Organization. It imposed controls on exports of personal protective and other medical equipment to the EU, including air-purifying respirators, ventilators, and surgical masks.

"The challenge facing governments on both sides of the Atlantic is how better to prepare for inevitable pandemics."

While many of these trade measures were subsequently lifted, such protectionism threatened lives on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond.

Scientists believe that future pandemics are inevitable and will occur more frequently thanks to the growing inter-connectedness of the world.8 The challenge facing governments on both sides of the Atlantic, and around the world, is how better to prepare for them. The transatlantic community is uniquely suited for such an endeavor. Nine of the world’s ten largest pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical companies are either American or European.9 And transatlantic nations host eight of the top ten biotechnology research universities.10

European and American governments, pharmaceutical companies, and scientists are actively pursuing a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus. The European Commission has funded several candidates and hosted a global summit to raise money for vaccine research.11 U.S. pharmaceutical companies have partnered with their European counterparts in an effort to develop a vaccine.

But several billion dollars will be needed to develop a vaccine and many billions more to manufacture and distribute sufficient doses to vaccinate the world population.12 There is no global agreement on how this will take place and who will pay for it. Nor is there agreement on the principles and rules for a fair international allocation of what will initially be a limited vaccine supply. To the contrary, the United States and some European governments initially pursued vaccine nationalism in their search for a cure.

The United States and Europe have a long history of collaboration in the face of global threats. They have worked together to contain Ebola outbreaks. They have the human, institutional, and financial resources necessary to meet the test of the current coronavirus pandemic and inevitable future pandemics. The breadth and depth of the COVID-19 experience suggests they would be better off facing crises of this magnitude together. As has become clear, they cannot rely on the supply of medical equipment, or a needed vaccine, from China or other international suppliers. To deal with the coronavirus and any future pandemics, Europe and the United States need to marshal their collective scientific and medical resources, and to develop resilient and diverse medical supply chains. Such action is needed now.

To that end, this Task Force recommends:

Ensure Equitable Access to Pandemic Treatment: Build on ongoing efforts led by the World Health Organization and others to ensure equitable access to pandemic vaccines and therapies, including the creation of a Global Fund to Fight Pandemics, and to finance large-scale, rapid distribution of such treatments for COVID-19 and future pandemics, especially in the developing world.

Jointly Finance Vaccines for Future Pandemics: The United States and Europe should encourage and incentivize the development of new vaccines for future pandemics through joint funding, regulatory harmonization, collaborative research and development, advance procurement agreements, and government funding of biomanufacturing infrastructure and supply chains. This should be orchestrated through transatlantic cooperation between universities, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and government laboratories.

Create a Transatlantic Stockpile of Medical Equipment and Medicines: To better prepare for future pandemics, the United States and Europe should regularly report on transatlantic production capacity, output, domestic demand, stockpiles, and exports and imports of critical medical equipment and supplies. Such a system could be modeled after one already in use for agriculture to better prepare for global famines. It should include a joint stockpile of medical supplies, equipment, and medicines to better respond to inevitable emergencies and to sustain transatlantic supply chains.

Halt Protectionism of Medical Equipment and Supplies: The United States and the European Union should agree to lift all export bans, tariffs, and non-tariff barriers, and buy national requirements on medical supplies and equipment. They should develop sourcing capabilities rooted in diverse and resilient transatlantic supply chains with the requisite commitments to sharing of supplies in times of crisis.

Strengthen the WHO: The United States should not leave the World Health Organization; it should join with the governments of Europe to reform and strengthen the WHO’s independence and finances.

Jointly Prepare for the Next Pandemic: The United States and Europe should develop a pandemic doctrine and strategy that defines what constitutes a pandemic, explains protocols for early containment and mitigation options, and details how to manage the outbreak collectively if it spreads globally. They should create joint rapid-response medical teams that can cooperate with affected nations to quickly assess the extent of the threat and the needed response. In addition, Washington and Brussels should lead an effort for an enhanced global “responsibility to report”—an early-warning commitment not only for national governments, but for regional health authorities, research labs, and companies to report outbreaks of epidemic diseases.

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7 Chad P. Bown, “How the G20 Can Strengthen Access to Vital Medical Supplies in the Fight Against COVID-19,” Peterson Institute for International Economics, April 15, 2020.

8 Shaena Montanari, “Epidemiologists have been Warning of a Coronavirus Outbreak for Years and Say that Another Pandemic Will Happen Again,” Business Insider, March 25, 2020.

9 Matej Mikulic, “Largest Pharmaceutical and Biotech Companies by Revenue 2019,” Statista, August 2, 2019.

10 “Global Ranking of Academic Subjects 2019, Biotechnology,” Areppim, August 30, 2019.

11 “COVID-19 Treatment and Vaccine Tracker,” Milken Institute, April 9, 2020.

12 Roxanne Khamsi, “If a Coronavirus Vaccine Arrives, Can the World Make Enough?”, Nature, April 9, 2020.