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  • August 2020
  • 5 minutes

Lessons Learned: Fixing Weak Links to Fight the Next Pandemic

  • Dr. Daniel D. Zimmerman
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In Brief
In the battle against COVID-19, RGA's Dr. Daniel Zimmerman asks whether we are playing a strong-link world. He outlines six lessons insurers and clinicians can learn from the indirect consequences of the virus and calls for greater focus on addressing vulnerabilities in the public health response. 

Because football (soccer) is highly cooperative, every team tends to be only as good as its worst player, or weakest link. Contrast this with a strong-link game like basketball, where a single superstar can more easily control play and win for an entire team. Perhaps the most compelling lesson from COVID-19 has been that we have been mistakenly playing a strong-link game in a weak-link world.

What do I mean? Insurers are closely monitoring the direct mortality and morbidity consequences of COVID-19, but the virus has resulted in indirect consequences that bear watching as well. Much ongoing scientific research has stalled as laboratories have closed and resources are diverted to fighting the pandemic. Widespread economic dislocations have disrupted manufacturing production and supply chains amid stay-at-home orders and border closures. Lifesaving cancer therapies, organ transplants, and other surgeries have been interrupted or postponed, and routine vaccinations and health screenings delayed. In short, the pandemic has revealed how highly interconnected and interdependent our public health, supply chain, and economic systems still are, and has exposed the fragility of these links.

Clinicians, public health officials, and insurers can learn much from the weak links revealed in our public health response to COVID-19. Here are six lessons from the indirect effects that, if learned, can help us better prepare for the next major pandemic:

  • Lesson #1 – Medical supply chains are vulnerable; let’s secure them.

    Nations cannot solely rely on just-in-time inventory management techniques when responding to a global public health emergency. Around the world, authorities discovered that stockpiles were insufficient and fundamental items, from gloves, masks, and gowns to critical pharmaceutical ingredients, were less accessible or even unavailable.
  • Lesson #2 - Public health must be apolitical and communication around public health issues should be transparent.

    Policies and recommendations must be based on the best available science, and when new information is made available, authorities must adjust recommendations and clearly make known the reasons and basis.
  • Lesson #3 – Social distancing is painful but necessary.

    Data received to date demonstrates that social distancing and proper hygiene can meaningfully interrupt the chains of transmission and slow the spread of this highly infectious disease. Although it remains challenging to maintain these measures for extended periods of time, indications of benefits extend beyond blunting the impact of COVID-19. Initial reports suggest these measures may have reduced transmission of seasonal influenza and could potentially have some offsetting effects.
  • Lesson #4 – Investment in epidemiological modeling and management can make a measurable difference in the progression of disease.

    The current experience has forced nations to enact many of the best practices in pandemic management discussed over decades. As a consequence, we will likely be more responsive and resilient when the next pandemic inevitably arrives.
  • Lesson #5 – Trust in science requires responsible reporting.

    Adversity is said to be the mother of invention, and this certainly has proven true with COVID-19. We are witnessing a deluge of scientific innovation across immunology, vaccine research, diagnostics, and therapeutics. Just as with the Cold War, Space Race, and HIV epidemics, collective scientific effort is delivering discoveries and technologies that promise to transform medicine for years to come. The public health community has an opportunity to return to large-scale immunization programs that have delivered some of the most successful medical interventions in history. 

    However, this progress is imperiled by miscommunication that could result in confusion and fuel skepticism around vaccine use and other health recommendations. Research findings have been disseminated through news media or pre-print journal releases before validated by peer review. There have even been embarrassing retractions in well-known medical journals when the data could not be validated. It is critical to communicate to the general public that, while scientific data is king, it is not always clean, and recommendations will change as understanding of a particular phenomenon grows.
  • Lesson #6 – COVID-19 is speeding technology adoption and transforming insurance and healthcare.

    Whether through the embrace of artificial intelligence to speed the selection of anti-viral pharmaceutical candidates, the greater commercial acceptance of telemedicine, or the use of web-conferencing to connect remotely, attitudes toward technology are changing across medicine and business. Insurers, in particular, are undergoing a historic pivot across products, processes, and partnerships, driven by both necessity and social responsibility. Carriers exist to protect people, and the pandemic has demonstrated the enormous social value of life and health coverage in delivering both value and security in uncertain times. As the pandemic continues to challenge traditional face-to-face sales and underwriting practices, insurers have, at least in the near term, fast-tracked online sales, explored more alternative evidence sources, and accelerated underwriting processes. When in need, carriers have also forged partnerships outside the industry to speed innovation and deliver solutions.

Perhaps the only surefire prediction about a pandemic may be that it will eventually end, only to be followed by another pandemic. The only question is: When, where, and how prepared will institutions be to respond rapidly to stem the spread? Long before COVID-19, transformative technological and medical advances have emerged from leading research labs and medical centers and attracted substantial interest and investment. But the current pandemic has revealed that the public health community may have been overly focused on funding superstar science and supporting the strongest institutions. In other words, we were playing a strong-link game, rather than identifying and addressing the weakest links in our medical, financial and economic systems. Only by strengthening these connections and improving cooperation can we establish a more resilient, responsive, and resistant defense against future pathogens and viral threats.

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Meet the Authors & Experts

Dan Zimmerman
Dr. Daniel D. Zimmerman
Senior Vice President, Chief Science Advisor