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Bringing Data Together: One of the Main Challenges when Preparing for Future Pandemics

ISGlobal hosted a symposium on COVID-19 variants and the next pandemic as part of the annual meeting of the European END-VOC project


What have we learned from COVID-19 and how can we anticipate the next pandemic? These questions were discussed at a scientific symposium hosted by ISGlobal in the framework of the third meeting of the EU-funded END-VOC project. More than 50 members of the international ENDVOC consortium and over 60 online participants from around the world attended the symposium held at the PRBB in Barcelona on June 6.

The symposium kicked off with a warm welcome by Antoni Plasència, Director General of ISGlobal, and Ibrahim Abubakar, UCL researcher and project leader, followed by opening remarks by the Secretary of Public Health in the Catalan Government, Carmen Cabezas, who emphasised the importance of joining efforts to survey SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses.

Preparing the field

In the first panel, Oliver Morgan, from the World Health Organisation (WHO), pointed out that, despite increasing efforts, sequencing capacity remains uneven between countries and data sharing remains a big challenge. He talked about the International Pathogen Surveillance Network (IPSN) recently launched by the WHO with the aim of achieving equitable access to genomic sequencing of pathogens. Janet Diaz, also from the WHO, presented the current and future uses of the WHO Global Clinical Platform, emphasising that data collection must be agile and flexible, explicit data ownership is key, and that real-time synthesis and presentation of this information is possible and can be of great value to clinicians, researchers and policy makers. Annick de Ruijter, from the University of Amsterdam, talked about how the way we prepare for -and deal with- pathogens has changed throughout history.

SARS-CoV-2 evolution

The second panel focussed on SARS-CoV-2 evolution. One of the key questions is where might the next variant of concern come from and whether we would recognise it as such. Tom Peacock, from Imperial College London, showed how wastewater sampling has allowed to detect lineages that are not being detected from nasal swabs in the clinics. These cryptic lineages derive from older variants and share several mutations that may alter its infective capacity. François Balloux, from UCL, called for a better surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens in wildlife. Zoonotic viruses that fall in empty spaces of the “immunological niche” (i.e. for which we have no cross-reactive immunity) are those we should most worry about, he said. The development and future of COVID-19 vaccines was discussed by Sergio Abrignani, from the University of Milan, while Nisreen A. Alwan, from the University of Southampton, talked about long Covid and the need for a precise definition. Uncertainty is magnifying all existing barriers and inequalities in care, and this needs to be acknowledged, she said.

During the next two days, the END-VOC Consortium, with many members meeting face to face for the first time, held its third general meeting to discuss progress and future actions.