“Global collaboration is needed more than ever to help us prepare for and prevent future viral threats.”
Gavin A. Cloherty, Ph.D., Head of Infectious Disease Research and the Pandemic Defense Coalition for Abbott’s diagnostics business, provides scientific leadership in the area of infectious disease diagnostics by conducting groundbreaking clinical studies and developing new diagnostic tests. As one of the top experts in the field, his pioneering research is changing the way infectious diseases are being diagnosed to help improve patient outcomes. “Hospitals” magazine met with him to talk about the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition, its role in addressing future threats and preventing future pandemics, among other important issues. Below is the full interview:
The Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition was launched two years ago; can you please explain the reasons behind this coalition and its specific role?
The Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition is a first-of-its-kind industry-led global scientific and public health partnership dedicated to the early detection of, and rapid response to, future pandemic threats. The coalition is a global network of ‘eyes on the ground’ – always looking for new pathogens and analyzing how known viruses are changing to help the global health community stay one step ahead. Abbott has spent nearly 30 years hunting viruses and invented the first HIV test 35 years ago. We’re experts in viral surveillance and know how to design, scale, and deliver diagnostic tools globally. For global health security, we need virus hunters in every corner of the world armed with the latest training and technology, which is what Abbott hopes to ultimately provide.
Who are the key players or participants in this coalition? And who orchestrates the cooperation between them?
When we set out to build the Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition, we intentionally focused on partnering with centers of excellence to support our global disease surveillance program. The Coalition has 15 scientific, academic and public health organizations on five different continents – we’re actively hunting, discovering and researching new and known threats around the world. Coalition partners contribute with expertise in infectious diseases, laboratory testing, genetic sequencing, epidemiology, and diagnostics to advance the goals of the network. Abbott serves as the key connector, but it’s a collaboration among all partners. The program will evolve over time, and we’ll continue to expand into different geographies and add partners where and when it makes sense.
How do you see the Coalition play a role in preventing or addressing future threats and preventing future pandemics?
Fighting pandemics is a team sport. Global collaboration is needed more than ever to help us prepare for and prevent future viral threats. The quicker a virus can be found and sequenced, the quicker it can be shared and tested to see if it’s a known or unknown pathogen – in doing so, we can ensure diagnostic tests detect it and vaccines and therapeutics aren’t impacted.
We’re learning more about mutations and what combination of mutations can evolve into variants of concern and which ones fizzle out. In the case of Omicron, Abbott’s collaboration with our partner in South Africa quickly alerted us to the threat and enabled us to analyze the viral sequences and confirm our diagnostic tests could detect it for the hospitals, doctors and consumers using our tests.
It’s possible the Coalition could identify the next pandemic threat. If someone presents with an unknown illness, the samples can be sequenced and shared. If more cases are seen, we can raise an alarm to prevent threats from reaching pandemic levels.
There are conflicting opinions whether COVID-19 is almost behind us even though we are still discovering new variants or a change in a variant now and then; do you think it can still pose serious threats. What’s your stance on the matter?
COVID is not over. Many people have moved on from the emergency phase of the pandemic, but the virus hasn’t moved on. It’s still here. COVID will likely become seasonal and ultimately endemic, and testing will continue to be a critical tool together with vaccines. As part of our global surveillance program, Abbott continually monitors COVID-19 mutations so we can ensure our diagnostic tests can detect them and that health professionals and consumers can use them with confidence. We use monitoring, sampling, sequencing and data collection on a global scale to stay one step ahead of the virus.
The northern hemisphere is in the middle of the flu season which, compared to COVID-19, was never considered a major threat to the population. How do you evaluate the threat of flu onto the world population, particularly in the Middle East; and what do you think about the spike of flu cases worldwide this year after we witnessed a decrease in Covid-19 cases?
We partner with the Global Influenza Hospital Surveillance Network and closely monitor the flu reporting trends and also take insights from markets like Australia that provide an early look into what to expect for the northern hemisphere. As COVID-19 continues to circulate, we must be more prepared than ever in regions of the world heading into traditional flu/respiratory season. With multiple respiratory viruses circulating, it’s no longer effective to make a presumptive diagnosis based on symptoms alone. COVID-19 and influenza are difficult to differentiate due to similar symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath and more. That’s why we are delivering innovative rapid diagnostics like ID NOW, a molecular point-of-care platform, that delivers fast, accurate testing for COVID-19, Influenza A & B, Strep A and RSV, to help health professionals and hospitals detect respiratory viruses quickly and provide effective treatment.
Rapid testing is the only way we can confidently diagnose and treat to help protect patients and our communities. Access to immediate, reliable information guides better decisions and allows health professionals whether in the hospital or at a clinic to diagnose faster and treat faster.
The Middle East region is hosting large scale sports events this month, in addition to the large number of tourists who are expected to flock in to enjoy the good winter weather. How can healthcare authorities equip themselves to face an incremental number of visitors and mitigate the potential spread of viruses, especially COVID and flu?
We know that travel and large gatherings are drivers for spread of viruses. Getting prepared for increases of respiratory cases is critical. Being ready with rapid testing tools and treatments so that patients can be effectively tested and diagnosed during a visit will help prevent further spread of viruses.
Further, encouraging the public to stay up to date with vaccinations for flu and COVID-19 and taking precautions such as masking- especially if you have risk factors or had a recent exposure, handwashing and staying home if ill are measures that should be practiced as well.
With the availability of self tests, it’s easier than ever for consumers to pick up a Panbio COVID-19 Antigen Self-Test, to help rule in or rule out an active COVID-19 infection.
Diagnostics and screening for COVID has obviously played a critical role during the pandemic; how do you see testing play a similar role in future health threats or pandemics?
The future of rapid testing couldn’t be more important. The future lies in the decentralization, digitalization and democratization of testing. Making tests easier to use and easier to access to reach more people in more places.
Throughout COVID-19, Abbott delivered fast, reliable, molecular and rapid antigen testing solutions —including self-testing, and illustrated the benefit of decentralized technologies at the point of care, and how they can help improve access and empower health professionals and people with important, timely health information.
An adequate and well-distributed diagnostics are key to battling disease outbreaks especially in low income to middle income countries where we see a large diagnostic delay; how do you plan to correct this gap in future pandemics?
Abbott’s Pandemic Defense Coalition is unique because we have the ability to rapidly develop diagnostic testing when a new viral threat is discovered. Backed by our global manufacturing network, we can produce and deliver much needed tests across the world, as we did with COVID-19. The key is activating and coordinating local government and regulatory agencies as part of an early response to ease the way for important diagnostic tools.
Any particular virus or pathogens you dread the most? And are you cooperating with the WHO regarding this matter? Which region causes you more worries with regard to a potential pandemic?
COVID-19 taught us that a viral threat somewhere is a viral threat everywhere. We saw the same with the fast spread of monkeypox this year to 90+ non-endemic countries.
We have to raise disease surveillance capabilities to strengthen pandemic defenses universally across the world. Our Abbott Pandemic Defense Coalition is uniting many sites in low- and middle-income countries to our network to collaborate, share and learn to strengthen pandemic defenses and sharpen response locally in these areas. As part of our work, we share information with researchers, local governments and global health authorities such as the WHO in real-time, to help ensure everyone is collaborating to identify threats and quickly act.
Is Monkeypox under control at the moment? Could it erupt uncontrollably?
Viruses are unpredictable; however, it appears monkeypox cases are continuing to tend downward. The important thing is to continue to monitor the outbreak and evolution of the variants to make sure we are prepared for any changes.
What are the chances the world could face another pandemic? Are governments more equipped to handle it better and are they more willing to cooperate among themselves to fight any future pandemic? Was Coronavirus a lesson well learned?
Ongoing global surveillance is key to preventing the next pandemic. COVID-19 made it painfully clear no one country or organization can do it alone. Today, there are more than 200 species of viruses that can infect humans. With so many to monitor, we need to build the next generation of virus hunters and train them in cutting-edge sequencing, bioinformatics, and other technologies. The good news is Abbott is investing in fellowships around the world that enable real-world lab and field training in viral discovery, sequencing epidemiology and more.
We are in talks with governments around the world to understand how we can best support national and local viral threat identification and response efforts. As part of this program, we will share information with researchers, local governments and global health to ensure everyone is collaborating to identify threats and quickly act.
In order to continue to be prepared and detect potential threats, we need to continue our global collaboration across industries, which will be an ongoing job. COVID-19 showed the importance of pandemic preparedness and the need for strong infrastructure, and we will continue to maintain the guardrails established as part of our coalition partnerships.