We must have a better plan for next pandemic, say Otago researchers

Aotearoa New Zealand’s next pandemic plan needs a completely different approach to our previous plan that was focussed on influenza, say researchers from the University of Otago, Wellington in a new article that identifies key lessons from the COVID-19 response for managing future major outbreaks and pandemics.

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig March 2021 image

Dr Amanda Kvalsvig.

In the article, ‘How Aotearoa New Zealand rapidly revised its COVID-19 response strategy: lessons for the next pandemic plan’, published online today in the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, epidemiologists Dr Amanda Kvalsvig and Professor Michael Baker describe what a new pandemic plan could look like and how it would differ from past versions.

Lead author Dr Kvalsvig says the research paper takes a systematic look at the steps involved in developing and then delivering a pandemic strategy.

“It’s about having a strategy that can be adapted to work for the pandemic you have, which may not be the pandemic you were expecting. We’ve seen other countries flounder because they were stuck with an influenza model that wasn’t suitable for the current pandemic, and decision-makers were unable or unwilling to change direction.

“In particular, Western countries appeared unable to learn from the experience of the Asia-Pacific region which rapidly contained and eliminated the pandemic by treating it more like SARS.”

Professor Michael Baker Jan 2021 image 226

Professor Michael Baker.

Co-author Professor Baker says that while New Zealand’s elimination strategy had been a success, it was much more difficult and expensive to deliver than it needed to be because so much vital infrastructure was lacking when the pandemic arrived.

“Even with an improved pandemic plan, we still need a public health system to ensure it is regularly updated, adapted and rapidly implemented when needed,” he says.

“New Zealand needs to invest in essential public health systems now to continue delivering our successful pandemic response and to build long term capacity. A key component is a dedicated public health agency.”

The research paper aims to support the major public health challenge of developing an effective and equitable strategy in a rapidly-evolving outbreak situation with many unknowns.

Dr Kvalsvig comments: “As a pandemic evolves, the response will need to evolve along with it. For example, a key decision at the moment is how the vaccine rollout will be integrated into New Zealand’s elimination strategy over the next one to two years.”

The specifics of the response will change over time, she says, but the values and epidemiological principles are consistent.

“We need a strong commitment to population health, supported by a diverse and well-resourced workforce, to ensure that we’re ready to respond effectively to any public health emergency.”

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