Despite (cautious) optimism born of encouraging trends in some countries and regions, COVID-19 is still spreading in hot spots around the world, and that means the pandemic is not only far from over, but that it will continue to delay the resumption of normal social and economic activity both in the U.S. and around the world. The imperfect, uneven and uncoordinated international responses to the virus—in terms of measures like testing, data collection, treatment, preventive recommendations, and now, of course, vaccination—have contributed to the millions of coronavirus-related deaths since the outbreak began.
And that’s just the current pandemic—others came before it, and others can be expected in the future.
As a result, the idea of improved international coordination between governments, national and international agencies, and the nonprofit and private sectors is a no-brainer. The Rockefeller Foundation has waded into this area with a new program tentatively referred to as the pandemic prevention institute, and it looks to be continuing the foundation’s increasing interest in pandemic-related activities since the current coronavirus began its spread. Serving as an early step to launch the pandemic prevention function, Rockefeller recently announced more than $20 million in funding and non-financial collaborations to build a coordinated international effort that will capture key scientific data about any pandemic emerging in the future.
More specifically, the new institute’s mission is to improve detection and response to pandemic threats by strengthening capabilities of organizations around the world to sequence genomic information about spreading diseases and to share that genomic data widely and rapidly. Rockefeller said it is collaborating with more than 20 public, private and nonprofit entities.
“One of the challenges that we faced at the onset of the pandemic was just the lack of information,” said Manisha Bhinge, managing director of programs for Rockefeller’s Health Initiative. “We didn’t know what it was, we didn’t know where it was, what was spreading, what the implications were, and if you look at this time last year, there was a lot of misinformation and uncertainty around critical data of the pathogen itself.”
Going forward, Bhinge explained, scientists and health officials need to understand what information public officials, not to mention private individuals and businesses, will need to take action. The goal, said Bhinge, is to avoid advancing from a pathogenic outbreak to an epidemic.
The institute will also coordinate clinical and other types of information that may be helpful to develop strategies to minimize the impact of pandemics. It’s going to be an evolving learning process. But it’s one that has to start. According to Rockefeller, only 14 countries are sequencing at least 5% of their cases and sharing them through global databases. Initially, Rockefeller’s grants and collaboration agreements will focus on building genomic sequencing capabilities in sub-Saharan Africa and India, and addressing gaps in the United States. Work in other regions will follow to strengthen a global network of genomic information available worldwide.
Rockefeller also aims to collaborate with other pandemic prevention efforts, including the WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence and the U.K.’s Global Pandemic Radar, to identify disease outbreaks early and hopefully stop them in the first 100 days.
As we’ve discussed in Inside Philanthropy previously during the pandemic, the Rockefeller Foundation has concentrated on nationally and globally scaled public efforts to understand and slow the spread of the coronavirus. Back in the spring of 2020, for example, the foundation released a report outlining a proposed national COVID-19 testing and tracing plan. At that time, the vaccines hadn’t been approved yet, and public health professionals considered testing and tracing to be important tools in understanding the epidemic and devising policies to slow the spread.
Rockefeller has some history with epidemics and pandemic prevention, including the launch of its Disease Surveillance Networks initiative in 2007, which followed previous grants starting in 1999. But in 2012, the foundation concluded that the DSN initiative had achieved its objectives to create networks in a number of at-risk regions, and shut it down, though Rockefeller did continue to fund occasional disease surveillance causes around the world. Now, the new pandemic prevention institute work seems to be filling the same sort of gaps in wide-scale disease monitoring and data-collection needs as the DSN initiative first set out to.
Although COVID-19 is not the only epidemic in recent years, it has raised awareness more so than previous outbreaks to the need for broad cooperation between public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic stakeholders: Rockefeller’s belief, says Bhinge, is that the foundation is in a position to help enable that cooperation.