How we can learn from the Covid-19 pandemic to prepare for future global health disasters

OnFrontiers caught up with David Milestone – a global health and innovation expert in our network – about what we can already learn from the response to the COVID-19 pandemic to help the world better cope with the next pandemic or global health crisis, because it is never too early to start preparing.

As people all over the world are on lockdown and millions are at risk for this particularly quick-spreading disease David Milestone, who last served as the Acting Director of the Center for Innovation and Impact at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said there are lessons we can take to innovate everything from treatment plans to government responses and harnessing private investment to help in a more effective response and even measures of prevention.

David Milestone worked for USAID for eight years and previously served in various capacities at companies like Boston Scientific, AT Kearney, and Stryker Corporation. He holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin and Stanford in mechanical engineering, with a focus on biomechanics. He also has an MBA/MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard where he specialized in management and strategy in healthcare.

We have to learn from Ebola and Zika

Milestone recalls that when he ran the Center for Innovation impact at USAID, which was established in 2012, “the team focuses on two main areas. The first was on catalyzing new solutions to long standing global health challenges. We did this primarily through open innovation competitions called grand challenges. And we found that these were especially useful during the Ebola and Zika outbreaks several years ago.”

He said these challenges were able to leverage everyone’s immediate and intense focus on an outbreak response and harness it to prepare for future ones. For instance the Fighting Ebola Grand Challenge produced new, more effective protective equipment for medical professionals which came from a team at Johns Hopkins University.

Milestone said these challenges are “a great tool in the innovation toolkit” for global health leaders, pharmaceutical companies, or anyone with a public-facing component or products. He noted it is key we don’t just react to COVID-19 but also be proactive, especially given estimates of how long this pandemic could stretch into 2020. “I often use a phrase I certainly didn’t come up with, but ‘don’t let a good crisis go to waste.’”

Market Access will be key

The second part of Milestone’s work at USAID was market access, or addressing how these innovations get into the marketplace  and into the hands of the people on the ground responding to a pandemic.

Innovation just for the sake of innovation does no one any good. It will be key to formulate a plan to get new vaccine development methods, protective equipment, N95 mask production methods, etc that come out of open challenges or other avenues out to the global health community and labs.

Bureaucracy is always going to be an issue but innovation can still continue

While Milestone eschewed from commenting on the current administration or past ones, he said what happens in Washington shouldn’t stop the rest of the world from thinking about new solutions to big problems.

“I think the fact that we’re now able to develop and test and commercialize a vaccine in a year and a half is absolutely incredible. That process used to take decades, and so just from a drug development and vaccine development standpoint, we are far ahead of where we’ve been in the past,” he noted.

Allocating funds to innovation is where it really starts

While bureaucracy may not stop lab-work or programming, engineering, or modeling required for a new response to a massive problem like COVID-19, funding can hamper it and cause us to lose an opportunity to implement long term thinking.

“My personal perspective would be that global health funders and national and local policy makers need to make sure that the billions of dollars that are going into responding to this epidemic, are used strategically and with the long-term in mind. Specifically, dedicating a portion of the response to institutionalize innovation and invest in future solutions,” Milestone explained.

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