Volker Gerdts is CEO of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), and Baljit Singh is vice-president of research, at the University of Saskatchewan. Loleen Berdahl is Executive Director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina.
Despite the continuing emergence of new variants and outbreaks of COVID-19, the current pandemic is starting to recede from many Canadians’ minds. After two years of isolation, overflowing hospitals and closed schools, most people are looking forward to regaining normalcy in their lives. But while it might be tempting to simply put COVID-19 at the bottom of our priority list, now is actually the best time for creating an effective plan to deal with the next pandemic.
The COVID-19 experience taught us that pandemics are not simply scientific problems, which are clearly defined and require straightforward solutions. The pandemic was partially characterized by a scientific problem – the novel coronavirus – and vaccines were the solution. But as we have seen over the past two years, pandemics are also “wicked problems,” a term used by policy-makers to categorize events that are multidimensional and socially complex, with interconnected challenges. Misinformation and political polarization were among the additional wicked problems associated with COVID-19, and solutions remain elusive.
Unlike scientific problems, wicked problems are ill-defined and indefinite in scope. Prime examples of these problems are the social and economic inequities in our country and around the globe that were highlighted by the pandemic. While economists are still tallying up the financial costs of COVID-19, the societal costs are evident: there have been significant impacts on our health care systems and our children’s educations, while misinformation spread by those opposed to vaccines has caused mass confusion. Alliances among fringe groups promoting conspiracy theories (often rooted in xenophobia) have exacerbated political polarization. The rapid development of effective vaccines was a biomedical science triumph, but this success was diminished by our failure to pay attention to and properly address the social and political ramifications of vaccine administration.
Future pandemics are a certainty. Canada must establish an effective plan now to protect the health of our population – and of our society – when new viruses arrive. Any effective plan must treat future pandemics as wicked problems, not just scientific problems. This will require Canada to bring together knowledge from both the sciences and social sciences – and to act now.
We suggest three steps to move forward.
First, Canada must invest in its biomedical sciences infrastructure to discover and develop life-saving diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics. We can no longer rely on other countries to do the work and expect them to share vaccines and diagnostics with us when their own people are also under threat. As leaders of the G7 have supported a proposed 100-day turnaround timeline for future vaccine development, Canada’s research needs to focus on technologies that allow for rapid rollouts. Canada’s recent investments in biosciences infrastructure, including the new Biomedical Research Fund (which is part of the federal government’s biomanufacturing and life science strategy), are important steps in the right direction.
Second, Canada must invest in and promote multidisciplinary and collaborative approaches to research that combine our knowledge of both biomedical science and social science. Understanding the intersectionality of human behaviour, economic systems, political polarization, and policy frameworks is critical to any future pandemic response, and the disciplines of political science, anthropology, psychology, economics, sociology, and public administration will all play important roles. To ensure that pandemic planning considers both the scientific and wicked problems we encounter, biomedical science teams need to also include social scientists.
Third, Canada must act immediately. We need top-notch infrastructure and sustainable funding to ensure that multidisciplinary teams and systems are fully developed before a new disease breaks out – not when the disease is already on our doorstep. The current pandemic has shown us that we cannot start looking for firefighters when the house is burning. Canada did not have enough skilled workers to perform critical research and diagnostics, operate critical infrastructure 24/7, and manufacture vaccines and therapeutics in our few manufacturing facilities when COVID-19 arrived. We also didn’t have strategies in place to apply social-science knowledge to our pandemic response, or systems in place to connect this knowledge to biomedical research.
Does Canada have the political will to learn from the COVID-19 experience and make the necessary changes? History is replete with examples of humanity having a short memory and repeating its mistakes.
The costs of this myopia are too high. Governments, academia, industries and community organizations need to work together to create policy frameworks that allow cross-collaboration and cross-fertilization. The time to start is now.