Novel viral variants: Why the world should prepare for chronic pandemics

This essay is part of a forthcoming PIIE series on Economic Policy for a Pandemic Age: How the World Must Prepare for a Lasting Threat.

Even with the alarming spread of variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 (short for coronavirus disease 2019), most economists, most policymakers, and perhaps most people have been assuming that at some point the pandemic will end, and life will resume as before. But what if it does not? Experience with HIV/AIDS and other precedents indicates that these disease events can turn from acute to chronic without going away. The reason lies in the extraordinary mix of virus characteristics, medical science, an interdependent global population, ease of global travel, social behavior, and political missteps and miscalculations—a mix that also caused SARS-CoV-2 to spread so quickly in our globalized era.

COVID-19 is only the latest example of an unexpected, novel, and devastating pandemic disease. Down the road, new threats will surely emerge. One can conclude from the world’s ongoing experience that we have entered a pandemic era. To prepare for the pandemic age, world leaders must cooperate to invest more in research in infectious diseases, as well as vaccine development; create and coordinate genomic surveillance efforts; and set up robust public health infrastructures.

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