Two years ago, Lori Tharps ’94 was at a crossroads, content in her life as a tenured professor but longing for something new. After attending her 25th Reunion, and hearing similar stories from classmates, she took a leap of faith, upending her comfortable life in pursuit of her true passion. These days, she couldn’t be happier.
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‘We Must Approach Preparedness Collaboratively’
Having studied both novel coronaviruses and emerging viruses in general, I thought I was prepared for a pandemic.
In fact, I expected it, to the point where I didn’t even dread it that much. Every grant I wrote discussed the credible threat presented by emergent and re-emergent viruses. I worked on MERS coronavirus when it first emerged in 2012, then on Ebola virus when it emerged unexpectedly in West Africa and caused an unprecedented epidemic. I worked on other novel emerging or re-emerging viruses, including some that you may have heard of, like dengue and Lassa virus, and some that you may not have, like Lujo virus. I thought the world was ready for whatever new virus came next. Maybe not perfectly ready, but at least there was a plan in place to respond.
SARS-CoV-2 taught me just how wrong I was.
This pandemic has tested our global and national biomedical preparedness and response capacity. In all respects, we have decidedly failed. No country has really succeeded in containing the pandemic. In the United States, despite achieving major scientific breakthroughs with vaccines, nearly 600,000 lives have been lost and millions more have been irreparably changed. Even countries that managed to control COVID-19 early on are seeing catastrophic surges because their vaccination campaigns have been too slow to keep up. All of this has had serious political and economic consequences. Nobody has escaped the pandemic unscathed.
By definition, pandemics impact the global community, not just the people of one nation. Because we were not adequately prepared as a global community, our response to this crisis was constrained by nationalism. But viruses are not sentient. They don’t have thoughts or feelings, and they don’t respect national borders. SARS-CoV-2 infects human beings regardless of what passport they carry, and our unwillingness to accept that basic truth and respond to this pathogen for what it is—a threat to the human species—is why we continue to struggle slowly into the post-pandemic era.
If we are to be truly ready for the next “big one”—and there will be another pandemic in our lifetimes, whether caused by influenza or whatever undiscovered virus becomes SARS-CoV- 3, or another virus from one of the 25 viral families known to be human pathogens—we must approach preparedness and response collaboratively. We must invest in global infrastructure, research, and technology development, while prioritizing equity. Novel viruses are a constant threat, which we won’t be able to contain unless we meet it as a united global community.
This story appears in the Summer 2021 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.
Read More Smart Ideas for a Post-Pandemic World
Gender Gap: Carrie Baker, ‘The Economic Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women’
Educational Inequality: Janelle Bradshaw ’00, ‘Make Equity Your Guiding Principle From Day One’
Parenting: Rachel Sturges ’02, ‘I Cherished the Intimacy That Developed From Us Being Together so Often’