The coronavirus pandemic has underscored how important our health is to the functioning of our interconnected societies
. And it has exposed the devastating consequences of not taking seriously warnings about threats to our health. As developed countries begin to look over the horizon of the pandemic, the world must think about how to “build back better,” in the words of US President Joe Biden.
“Better” means learning the right lessons from the pandemic and prioritizing what we call “preemptive medicine.” We must increase spending and government attention on preparing for the next pandemic. But early warning systems and rapid vaccine production are not enough. We must reconceptualize our entire approach to focus more on preempting illness than simply treating it when it arrives—whether as a chronic disease or a novel infectious disease.
That requires a major global effort aimed at protecting against, preventing, or postponing the onset of disease through novel interventions. The fields of preventive medicine and public health are well established, and they include behavioral interventions (such as seat-belt requirements, smoking cessation campaigns, nutritional guidance) and advanced diagnostics. We are proposing expanding and broadening these fields by using biological sciences and new digital technologies to understand how to mitigate future threats to health and to prevent or postpone disease before it occurs.
The adoption of a global preemptive medicine agenda would have profoundly positive impacts for individual health and global economic growth. Healthier populations get more schooling, are more productive, and live longer. Better global health would also hasten the demographic transition in emerging markets, leading to greater investment in the futures of individual children.
A preemptive medicine paradigm will require fundamental changes in the relationship among individuals, the private sector, and the state. We are clear-eyed about the potential challenges arising from a predictive, data-driven approach to health. In order to “crowd in” private investment, protect privacy, and bridge inequality, new policy, regulatory, and financial frameworks will need to be developed, and new institutions will have to be built nationally and globally.
The Covid-19 pandemic presented the world with a public health challenge that none of us have known in our lifetimes. But it also has brought a once-in-a-century opportunity to re-imagine our approach to health to be far more than just “sick care.” Anything less than profound and lasting change would be an affront to the millions who have lost their lives. We must not let this opportunity go to waste.