Preparing for Pandemics: What if you could disrupt the next pandemic before it starts?

The Pandemic Center, the School of Public Health’s newest research center, was launched last fall with the mission of using positive disruption to stop pandemics and other biological emergencies before they can gain momentum and upend our lives and livelihoods.

Mitigating the harms these global events pose to health, security, and prosperity isn’t a simple task: pandemic risks are increasing. In the five months since the center’s establishment, there have been outbreaks of Mpox (formerly called monkeypox), Ebola, Marburg virus, polio, a significant spike in RSV, and continued concerns that the ongoing H5N1 outbreak could jump from animals to humans.

Governments and communities need to develop their capacity to monitor and respond to these different biological emergencies. “Pandemics have a long half-life. While we’re contending with a deadly biological emergency like COVID-19, other infectious disease threats may simultaneously arise and require a response,” says Professor of Epidemiology Jennifer Nuzzo, the inaugural director of the Pandemic Center. “Our national response systems are ill-prepared for handling a single pandemic threat, let alone multiple, concurrent emergencies.”

The Pandemic Center was created to achieve four core goals: generate and synthesize the data needed to support decisionmaking; ensure that that evidence is translated into effective policies and practices; train the next generation of pandemic leaders; and educate and engage the broader public to save lives.

Translating Evidence Into Practice

Policymakers are still learning how best to prepare for and respond to pandemic threats. Experts at the Pandemic Center aim to address the questions at the top of scientists’ and policymakers’ lists, such as ‘How can we balance quarantine and other public health strategies with our democratic freedoms?’

“ We need to understand what worked and what didn’t at the community level and then we need to institutionalize policies and systems that work for pandemic response. Our lives depend on it. ”

Beth Cameron Ph.D. Professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice

Pandemic Center senior advisor Beth Cameron, professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice, is heading an effort with leading national organizations, including the COVID Collaborative and the Center for Strategic and International Security’s (CSIS) Global Health Policy Center, to launch a new and bipartisan effort focused on enhancing American democracy and pandemic security. This initiative draws from a December 2022 meeting of U.S. leaders focused on bridging divides between individual and democratic freedoms and pandemic security. “We need to understand what worked and what didn’t at the community level and then we need to institutionalize policies and systems that work for pandemic response.” says Cameron. “Our lives depend on it.”

Researchers at the Pandemic Center are also working in partnership with Gates Ventures’ Exemplars in Global Health program to identify specific effective practices in low- and middle-income countries to maintain essential health services while responding to pandemics. Wilmot James, professor of the practice of health services, policy and practice, joined the Pandemic Center this spring to lend his decades of experience in global health policy to the center’s efforts.

The Pandemic Center team is co-leading the development of the third Global Health Security Index, an analysis of preparedness gaps and assets in 195 countries. This effort is being undertaken by Nuzzo, with partners at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Economist Impact.

Building a Bridge to D.C.

Future public health leaders require the skills to prevent and respond to infectious disease emergencies. Recognizing this, the Pandemic Center trains students and professionals to prepare for biological crises, including developing familiarity with incident management and national security protocol. Students learn to lead “no regrets” responses—that is, knowing how to act early in the face of uncertainty to save lives and prevent the worst possible scenarios from coming to pass.

To support this training, the Pandemic Center has established an office in Washington, D.C. to provide students, as well as faculty and affiliates, with opportunities to engage directly with public policy. This spring, in collaboration with the Horizon Institute for Public Service, the center offered a workshop aimed at professionals considering careers in biosecurity and pandemic preparedness. The goal of this training and mentoring exercise is to transform rising leaders in health and national security to be “Pandemic Game Changers,” equipped with the skills necessary to respond early and effectively to save lives and mitigate other pandemic harms.

With interest in pandemic-related careers rising at Brown as well, administrators from the center have compiled a growing list of internships and other opportunities with organizations in Washington, D.C. and globally working to combat pandemics and will continue to build strategic relationships that provide students with opportunities to work and train.

Connecting with the Public

For Nuzzo, preventing the next pandemic requires buy-in from the public, built on a foundation of trust. “No government official wants to get caught flat-footed by an emergency,” says Nuzzo. Beyond presenting convincing evidence, she knows that the key to a successful pandemic response is ongoing investment in building trusted relationships between government leaders and community members. “You cannot do public health without sufficient public engagement—you need to build and nurture those relationships in advance.”