Are we ready for the next pandemic?

Though the number of Floridians infected by COVID-19 recently surpassed 700,000 cases and continues climbing, campuses are reopening and classes are resuming at many Florida colleges and universities. Is this smart? And does anyone have a plan for the next pandemic?

Professors across the state are pondering what will happen when the next “novel” disease hits.

Derek Cummings, a biology professor at the University of Florida, is among the leading researchers. “We are trying to understand the ecology of pathogens,” he said. “We are trying to gain insight into what else is out there and what might make the leap to humans.”

One of his main areas of study, transmission of infectious diseases, “can help you respond to new pathogens that you weren’t even anticipating having as a problem,” he said.

In short, understanding vaccines and how the immune system works will better prepare society for another outbreak. “The UF emerging pathogens team will provide the resources to help fight the epidemic,” he concludes.

Back in Miami, Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University (FIU), said you have to look at the past to understand the future. Her focus is on the epidemiology of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases. Studying these infirmities has given her an understanding of the importance of preparation.

“You have to understand previous mass outbreaks,” said Trepka.

She said one of the diseases worth further research is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). According to the CDC, SARS is a viral respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). SARS was first reported in Asia in February 2003. The illness spread to over two dozen countries in Asia, Europe, North America and South America before being contained.

“If it is another respiratory virus like SARS, we will want to follow the guidance that we get from the CDC, work with our partners at the Florida Department of Health, and get information out to faculty and students,” said Trepka.

Fellow FIU professor and chair of the Department of Biostatistics, Dr. Zoren Bursac, adds that enforcing safety measures and clear instructions will allow for future viruses to be contained.

“FIU took a very conservative approach with COVID-19 and played it safe. They shut it down,” said Bursac. “[FIU] moved courses online, having a very limited number of students on campus and having spaces where they can be isolated.”

Bursac is watching closely the opening of FIU and its effect on students.

“The university is trying to repopulate slowly, and they made a lot of modifications on campus to assure everybody’s safety,” said Bursac. “Experts will drive all of the decisions for repopulating to safety and testing tracing.”

“In the future, hopefully some general precautionary measures that are being put in place like simple handwashing and social distancing will be employed,” said Bursac. “But then again, every disease and every outbreak is very specific. So there will always be a slightly different approach to it.”

Research professors have kept in mind that every outbreak will not require the same type of treatment.

“There is no simple solution,” said Dr. William Darrow, a professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention at FIU.

Darrow studies social and behavioral aspects of HIV and other infectious diseases.  He believes outbreaks take time to understand. He cites Zika, a disease spread by mosquitoes, as being very different from the present pandemic.

“You can’t compare COVID-19 to Zika,” said Dr. Darrow. “Two different things based on two different modes of transmission.”

At FIU, one approach has been using Panthers Protecting Panthers (P3), a mobile application available in the Apple app store and on Google Play. Students and staff answer a safety screening questionnaire each day prior to coming onto campus. The app is a tool to educate the FIU community and keep it safe. This use of technology will be a significant part of the future of medicine for tracking viruses and providing an opportunity for self-testing.

One thing’s clear to all: Transparency and funding are needed now to prepare for infectious diseases of the future. But resources for public health are limited.

“Past experiences of outbreaks have highlighted the need for continuing investment in public health,” said Dr. Cummings. “There will be a better understanding on how to combat effects, threats.”

Racquel Lewis is a Miami native who enjoys botany, comedy, theatre, and culinary arts. She is currently an assistant editor at Caplin News while also attending Florida International University as a Broadcast Media major. Her goals are to have her own show and to get an Emmy.