Skip to main content
Move the World.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the world is underprepared for the global spread of infectious diseases, but new technology is creating opportunities for the development of disease surveillance systems which can put humans on the offense, rather than the defense.

What the pandemic has taught the general public is something that those working in infectious diseases have known for a while: we don't currently have adequate systems for detecting and preventing an emerging threat of a pandemic. By the time we have sufficient details on an emerging virus, it's usually already too late to contain it.

The novel coronavirus isn't the first, and won't be the last, virus to threaten the global population. But experts in disease surveillance are collaborating across continents to turn the tide and prevent the next outbreak before it even starts. 

What We Can Learn From the Ebola Outbreak

In 2014, while the Ebola outbreak spread quickly throughout Western Africa and other parts of the world, a collaboration across continents helped save innumerable lives. In July of that year, an infected Liberian man traveled by plane to Africa's most populous city, Lagos, and died just five days later from the infection. Widespread fear amassed that the virus would tear through the region.

Yet Lagos, with a population of over 20 million, was able to contain the outbreak and limit the number of infections to 19 people, only seven of whom died. How was this region able to escape devastation and prevent mass casualties? In part, this outcome can be linked to a now 20-year-long partnership between scientists in Nigeria and the U.S.

Dr. Pardis Sabeti, a computational biologist and leader in the Broad Institute's Infectious Disease and Microbiome Program, and Dr. Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), began working together over two decades ago to combat the global spread of infectious diseases.

"We started becoming really aware that so many of these infectious diseases were just going undetected," Dr. Sabeti describes. "It started with just training a few of our lab staff and having a back and forth between the U.S. and Africa, creating a network. We were just launching that when Ebola hit."

The well-timed collaboration led to a sharing of resources and training for professionals across the West African region on how to properly diagnose the disease. Teams were then positioned in key areas with the equipment necessary to set up diagnostics quickly. In part because of these efforts, Nigeria was declared Ebola free just three months later.

Using Disease Surveillance To Prevent the Next Pandemic 

Building upon the success of this collaboration, ACEGID and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have worked to develop a leading-edge pandemic preemption system. The system, named Sentinel, is designed to "detect viruses, connect data systems, and empower the healthcare community" to quickly respond to new threats of outbreaks.

Sentinel would allow healthcare workers to test for hundreds of unique viruses simultaneously, identifying high-priority viruses in an hour, all known viruses within a day, and previously unknown viruses within a week. The system's connected applications also allow this data to be shared in real-time with local and national public health officials.

Sentinel would allow healthcare workers to test for hundreds of viruses simultaneously and share the data with public health officials in real-time.

One of Sentinel's advanced tools is SHERLOCK, a test which uses CRISPR technology to detect specific viruses in human fluid samples. If there is a new, previously unknown virus discovered in a sample, genomic sequencing can be used to identify it and create new SHERLOCK tests within 24 hours to help catch the virus before it spreads.

Dr. Sabeti explains, "It essentially lends to field deployable, cheap, sensitive, rapidly programmable diagnostics, and that's what you need to move quickly in responding to infectious diseases."

"You can't address a pandemic only with tools and technologies," Dr. Happi adds, "you need people." Another key component of the Sentinel project is its Scout and Lookout applications. Scout allows individual users to track their daily symptoms, as well as a list of their contacts to help with contact tracing. Lookout is a desktop application which allows administrators to keep track of the number of cases, individuals tested, and more.

"We should never be in a situation again in which we have to stop the world to stop a pandemic."

Dr. Pardis Sabeti

The world is far more interconnected today than it has ever been throughout the course of human history. While the spread of infectious diseases has always been a threat to mankind, the way in which we combat these threats must evolve.

Leveraging disease surveillance technology and working collaboratively, healthcare professionals will soon be able to predict and prevent pandemics before they happen, saving countless lives in the process. As Dr. Sabeti says, "We should never be in a situation again in which we have to stop the world to stop a pandemic."

For more interesting news about the people and ideas that are changing our world, subscribe to Freethink.

Up Next

Public Health
Disease Detectives: Tracking Invisible Killers
coronavirus transmission
Public Health
Disease Detectives: Tracking Invisible Killers
Disease detectives on the frontlines of coronavirus track the person-to-person spread.

Disease detectives on the frontlines of coronavirus track the person-to-person spread.

Frontiers of Medicine
Hunting Zoonotic Diseases Before an Outbreak
zoonotic diseases
Frontiers of Medicine
Hunting Zoonotic Diseases Before an Outbreak
Stopping zoonotic diseases — and pandemics — may require studying not just viruses, but also animals, habitats, and people.

Stopping zoonotic diseases — and pandemics — may require studying not just viruses, but also animals, habitats, and people.

Future of Medicine
Will These Lab-Made Viruses Prevent a Pandemic?
gain of function mutation
Future of Medicine
Will These Lab-Made Viruses Prevent a Pandemic?
Previously blacklisted gain-of-function mutation experiments are back, and they’re being used to fight the next major pandemic.

Previously blacklisted gain-of-function mutation experiments are back, and they’re being used to fight the next major pandemic.

Virology
Studying Pig Sh*t to Prevent the Next Pandemic
pig virus
Virology
Studying Pig Sh*t to Prevent the Next Pandemic
A pilot program in North Carolina offers one solution to scanning for a potential pig virus in our farm system - slurry testing.

A pilot program in North Carolina offers one solution to scanning for a potential pig virus in our farm system - slurry testing.

Disease X
Preparing for Outbreak: Fighting the World's Deadliest Diseases
Preparing for Outbreak: Fighting the World's Deadliest Diseases
Watch Now
Disease X
Preparing for Outbreak: Fighting the World's Deadliest Diseases
The World Health Organization has compiled a list of the most dangerous diseases that could strike next year.
Watch Now

Recently the media was abuzz with talk of ‘Disease X,’ a mysterious illness that could spread across the world. And then...nothing happened. It turns out that people had misinterpreted the World Health Organization’s List of Blueprint priority diseases, which identifies the world’s most dangerous diseases in terms of potential for outbreaks or epidemics. There are diseases that are already known - like Ebola, MERS or SARS -...

Global Health
The Next Pandemic Is Out There. Is the Private Sector Ready?
Event 201 works with private sector for global pandemic preparedness.
Global Health
The Next Pandemic Is Out There. Is the Private Sector Ready?
Johns Hopkins' simulated, international catastrophe is helping business, government, and public health leaders improve global pandemic preparedness.

Johns Hopkins' simulated, international catastrophe is helping business, government, and public health leaders improve global pandemic preparedness.

Future of Medicine
Every Significant Breakthrough That’s Stemmed from the Pandemic
timeline of the coronavirus
Future of Medicine
Every Significant Breakthrough That’s Stemmed from the Pandemic
A timeline of coronavirus solutions from the people on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

A timeline of coronavirus solutions from the people on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19.

Reverse Innovation
MacGyver Medicine Can Save Lives
MacGyver Medicine Can Save Lives
Reverse Innovation
MacGyver Medicine Can Save Lives
The package is simple and dirt-cheap—a plastic bag with a condom, a syringe, a rubber tube, and a card with...

The package is simple and dirt-cheap—a plastic bag with a condom, a syringe, a rubber tube, and a card with instructions—but it can mean the difference between a mother living and dying.

Dispatches
A "LinkedIn for Cancer" Helps Myeloma Patients Find Help – and Hope
A
Dispatches
A "LinkedIn for Cancer" Helps Myeloma Patients Find Help – and Hope
The site aims to help scientists discover new treatments – and empower patients to advocate for their own care.
By Kaitlin Ugolik

The site aims to help scientists discover new treatments – and empower patients to advocate for their own care.