Insider Q&A: Ex-biodefense chief on stopping the next COVID

WASHINGTON (AP) — When COVID-19 hit the U.S. early last year, public health scientist Rick Bright had an up-close view of what worked and what didn’t.

As head of the federal government’s biodefense agency Bright was responsible for securing tests, protective gear, drugs and vaccines. But he was demoted from that post last April after repeatedly clashing with political appointees over the response effort. Bright alleged in a still-pending whistleblower lawsuit that he was sidelined for objecting to the use of the unproven malaria drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients. The drug was later deemed ineffective and too risky by health regulators.

Now an executive with the Rockefeller Foundation, Bright says non-government organizations can play a critical role in gathering data needed to stop future pandemics. His conversation with the Associated Press has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What is the one thing you wish we’d had in the early days of COVID?

A: The one thing that tripped up the world up is that we did not have a reliable, nonpolitical, early warning signal. Why didn’t the world know that something bad had happened and that it’s spreading and we all need to work together? We didn’t have a strong signal. We were sequestering that information in different governments and even within international bodies, such as the WHO. And we were not being transparent, sharing that information with all of those who were capable of helping us to do something about it. I think that is what we needs to change.

Q: How how does your work with the non-profit Rockefeller Foundation fit into this?

A: What I’m really focused on is that trigger that could have stopped this pandemic: The apolitical, democratic, federated approach, whatever you want to call it — to sharing the early warning signs. There’s so much that governments can do around the world. There’s so much that companies can do around the world. There’s so much NGOs and individuals can do if they just know something bad is about to happen.

Q: Is the problem that no one is tracking this data?

This is not for a lack of information or data. There is lots of data being generated. But we need to have smarter data that we can understand. We need to be able to aggregate all that information in a trusted source that’s not beholden to politics or money.

Q: What is the foundation doing to change this?

By building the Pandemic Prevention Institute, we are addressing the need to bring together all the various disparate data sources from around the world — so we know who’s been infected and what the consequence is. Our vision is that by bringing that together into one central hub, we can create this report for government stakeholders, policymakers, health advisers and individuals. That type of data could be used to trigger actions that will prevent a small outbreak from becoming a larger outbreak, from becoming a pandemic.

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