Public-Private Partnerships are Key to Improving America's Pandemic Response Now and in the Future

By James Lu, MD, PhD

As we enter the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to reflect on key successes in the collective COVID-19 response. The pandemic response required partnerships across all facets of society, but public-private partnerships have been essential to successes in vaccines, testing and viral surveillance. 

One clear success was the remarkable development of the COVID-19 vaccine. In partnership with the U.S. government, private developers of vaccines including Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna were able to run trials, receive approvals, and launch novel vaccines in less than a year – a speed that “challenges our whole paradigm of what is possible in vaccine development,” according to University of Florida biostatistician Natalie Dean. This speed was also enabled by the ability to quickly sequence the SARS-CoV-2 virus – an often overlooked but critical first step that allowed vaccine manufacturers to develop candidate vaccines within days of publishing the data. To date, more than 60 percent of the world’s population has already received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine – a prime example of the potential power that can be harnessed when the federal government leverages the speed and innovation of the private sector for the common good.

Other key responses to the pandemic took a similar approach. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) initiated the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative to speed innovations in COVID-19 testing. Because of these initiatives, industry and academic organizations for lab-based PCR, antigen and other novel technologies have contributed to over 500M additional tests. 

Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also began partnering in early 2021 with private industry players like Helix and Illumina to establish variant sequencing. This helped make it possible for Helix to be one of the first to accurately identify the majority of Alpha cases nationwide and the first private sector partner to predict that Delta cases would make up at least half of all COVID-19 infections by mid-summer 2020. Because of these partnerships, the country is now sequencing and monitoring over 100x more specimens than in late 2020, providing more real-time intelligence and enabling more rapid response. 

As the Omicron surge starts to wane, however, it’s clear more must be done to anticipate the next COVID-19 variants that are inevitably coming. And perhaps even more importantly, think about how to predict and prevent the next “Disease X.”

First and foremost, a baseline surveillance capability must be established that will lead to faster and more effective responses to future COVID-19 variants and other pandemic threats. Delayed and incomplete viral surveillance reporting have negatively impacted public health outcomes during this pandemic because public health departments and providers i.e., the hospitals and clinics that played critical roles as first responders – have not had access to timely data that monitors and alerts them to emerging pathogens. This has left important players in the dark, unprepared for and overwhelmed by successive waves of new variants. Continuing to leverage public-private partnerships will enable a more effective national viral surveillance system that not only incorporates and extends now proven molecular tools genomic sequencing across a wide range of pathogens, but also modernizes the data backbone of public health. 

Some of the nation’s most successful advancements – the Internet, GPS, COVID vaccines – were the direct result of successful partnerships between public and private sectors. It will take all of us working together as a national and global community – governments, academia, industry – to battle not only this pandemic, but to preemptively manage the next global health crisis that may be right around the corner.

James Lu, MD, PhD, CEO and co-founder, Helix
James Lu, MD, PhD, co-founded Helix in 2015 and now serves as CEO. He previously served as chief scientific officer. James’s teams led the development of Helix's Exome+® assay and pipeline, established the company's CLIA/CAP lab, created the Helix Research Platform, and received the first and only FDA authorization for its whole exome sequencing platform. He also drove Helix's large-scale COVID-19 testing and viral surveillance program, securing both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) partnership for diagnostic testing and a national viral surveillance partnership with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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