Aspen Ideas Festival: Pandemic lessons include early detection, telehealth

Virologist Nathan Wolfe, founder of Metabiota, spoke with Sarah Zhang, a staff writer for The Atlantic, at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30, 2021.
The Aspen Institute

Nathan Wolfe has followed bushmeat hunters into the jungles of Cameroon to study virus transmission. He has tried to sell pandemic insurance to massive corporations. And for years, he warned us that the world wasn't ready for the risks posed by novel infectious diseases.

Fast forward to today, amid the ongoing suffering and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it's clear that Wolfe was right.

Now, Wolfe told The Atlantic's Sarah Zhang at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June that he’s focused on answering the question: “How do we decrease the chance that we have these devastating pandemics?”

Wolfe believes the most important thing we need to do now to stop future pandemics is build always-on public health monitoring of human populations around the world.

Until recently, it was so onerous to collect all the different kinds of specimens necessary to map the viruses and microbes in a person that “the notion of doing monitoring of populations was something we didn’t even really conceive of,” Wolfe said.

Technology has changed that, Wolfe said. For example, a test called a liquid biopsy makes it possible to scan for viruses and microbes in a human body.

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“We should have always-on systems that are capable of monitoring for all of the viruses present, all of the microbes present within a society,” Wolfe said — and thanks to new technology like liquid biopsies, “that’s within reach.”

At the same time, Wolfe called on governments, public health institutions and societies around the world to build the “dynamic capacity for populations to respond” to threats of epidemics and pandemics.

Wolfe argued that the COVID-19 pandemic was so devastating not because of late detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus but because of largely ineffective systemic responses.

Part 2: Exploring big pandemic ideas in health care

PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz hosted a virtual discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival featuring three thought leaders, who talked about solutions to racial disparities in health and health care.

  • Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University.

  • Dr. Gary Butts, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Mount Sinai Health System.

  • Lauren Underwood, Democratic congresswoman from Illinois.