Are we ready for the next pandemic?

The European Union’s failure to prepare for the Covid-19 pandemic was due to a lack of research funding, argue several prominent researchers. This has resulted in the spending of billions of euros to fight the virus and its consequences.

Published On: March 28th, 2023

“The World is not ready for the next pandemic. If a new virus emerges, it would take at least a year for the first vaccines to be developed. Broader-acting drugs should be developed,” prophesied Johan Neyts , professor of virology at the Belgian University of Leuven, at the 8th international Symposium on Modern Virology in September 2019 in Wuhan. Just a couple of months later, in the same city which hosted the event, the professor’s prediction would be realised in the global havoc we all experienced. 

“If you have an enemy attacking you, then you’d better have your weapons ahead of the attack. You need to build them in peacetime,” said Neyts, “Instead, what we did with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus causing Covid-19) is that we waited for the attack and then we started building our weapons.”

It’s true: the European Union has spent billions of euros fighting the Covid crisis, but only a few million trying to prevent it, failing to do so precisely due to a funding shortage for research. According to researchers, far more lives and economic losses could have been spared had decision-makers in Brussels pursued the drug development investment strategy implemented in the wake of the first SARS outbreak in 2003. If such a shortsighted, emergency-based approach persists, European citizens will be left unprotected against future epidemic threats. 

The EU still prefers to finance reaction to – rather than preparation for – pandemics. This is a mistake, especially when it comes to the development of broad-spectrum antivirals which could be manufactured beforehand and used right when any outbreak occurs. 

The numbers seem to confirm this conclusion. The European Commission (EC) has pledged 600 million euro from the Horizon Program for 2023-24 to tackle both Covid and future health crises through cross-border collaboration on pathogen surveillance, medical research and improvement of health systems. 

While the sum appears generous, no more than 50 million euro will be allocated to drug development, which is less than 2 percent of the sum paid by the EC to Big Pharma to partly cover Covid vaccine development costs – amounting to 2.9 billion euro (including 350 million for the research stage). Moreover, there are genuine concerns that funding cuts beyond the next two years, given how such cuts occurred in the past, could undermine Europe’s preparedness for future pandemics.

“Investing in drugs that can neutralise potential infectious diseases as soon as they appear is like an insurance premium, a choice between how much risk we want to take by simply letting it go and seeing what happens, or trying to be prepared,” says Neyts. The EU paid for its lack of preparedness against SARS-2 with almost 439,000 deaths and a GDP decline of 6.5 percent in 2020, the first year of the Covid surge, and 2.018 trillion euro mobilised through the Recovery Plan to rebuild the economy ravaged by the lockdown. One could assume that 30 billion euro, the amount that the 27 member states eventually had to spend on vaccine doses, could have been a fair premium to pay in advance in the form of drug development and procurement.

“We cannot blame Pharma companies for not developing drugs against coronaviruses, because there was no market for them back then since SARS-Cov-1 disappeared after a few months,” Neyts says. “I think the rich countries are to be blamed. They did not create the necessary incentives for companies to develop drugs that can be stockpiled.”

The problem is that the most boring pandemic is the one we will have prevented from happening because nobody will know about it; those in power will not get any credit for countering it, and governments don’t like to invest so much public funds in prevention without 100% assurance of success. Politicians tend to look 3-5 years ahead because that is normally the time for which they have been appointed or elected, while a long-term drug development plan takes 10 to 20 years. We cannot achieve tangible results with projects that the EU usually funds for up to 5 years. But scientific anticipation, which takes time, is less visible to taxpayers than reaction.

According to the prominent researchers we interviewed, the 18 years that have elapsed between SARS-1 and SARS-2 were enough time to develop many good inhibitor prototypes and, with antiviral medication Paxlovid, Pfizer showed it is possible even in just two years with adequate investment. Many other scientists agree that we might have had a chance to contain SARS-2 in Wuhan through distribution and use of such drugs, and that, although there is no guarantee that the virus would not have spread across the globe, at least it would have bought more time for vaccine development.

Neyts, together with Eric J. Snijder , head of molecular virology research at Leiden University Medical Center, Rolf Hilgenfeld , Head of the Coronavirus Team at the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Lubeck, and Bruno Canard , Director at the French National Center For Scientific Research and specialist in virus structure and drug-design at Marseille University, was one of the key pioneers of the trans-European network of scientists who have collaborated on coronaviruses since the discovery of the first SARS. They were all part of three promising projects, co-funded by the EU with a total 30 million euro with the 6th and 7th Framework Programs, that could have paved the way for an effective response to Covid. Each project was the logical continuation of the previous one; they were named SARS-DTV (2004-2007), Vizier (2004-2009) and