For months, I’ve been hearing the same concerning phrase from scientists: There is more than one pandemic happening right now.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists across disciplines — especially those studying infectious diseases — saw research resources and interests pivot away from other topics toward the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus.
“Right now, it's only COVID, COVID, COVID, which I understand,” said Abhay Satoskar, an immunologist at Ohio State University who is developing a novel vaccine for Leishmaniasis. “We need to realize that there are many other infectious diseases that people are suffering.”
Before COVID-19 arrived, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and multi-drug resistant staph infections affected millions of people annually, with most of the disease burden falling primarily on people living in developing countries. With the pandemic, many of these infections have gone unaccounted for and untreated as people avoided, or were turned away from over-extended hospitals.
For diseases like tuberculosis (TB) that require multiple drugs and long treatment regimens, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the disease even more challenging to combat.
“People were barely detecting and treating TB cases in developing worlds,” said Brian VanderVen, a tuberculosis researcher at Cornell University, who is working on a new treatment for the bacterial infection. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these countries’ priorities and diagnostic resources shifted away from tuberculosis. “It’s a really bad scenario,” he added. “People are going to go unreported.”
With many diseases flying under the radar as we focus on the current threat of SARS-CoV-2 and its ever-expanding repertoire of variants, scientists worry about what the world is going to look like once we emerge from the pandemic.
“When COVID is gone, antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are still going to be there,” said Victor Torres, a Staphylococcus aureus researcher at New York University Grossman School of Medicine.
While the infectious diseases that plagued us long before COVID-19 are not going anywhere, one important takeaway from the pandemic is that fast-paced solutions to combatting global infectious threats are possible.
The pursuit of vaccines for SARS and MERS led to the quick rollout of mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines. Now, scientists in academia and industry are already developing new mRNA vaccines for other pathogens. For example, Moderna, Pfizer, and Sanofi have mRNA-based flu vaccines in clinical trials, and the biotech company CureVac has shown promising phase I clinical trial results with their mRNA vaccine for rabies. Other groups are working on mRNA vaccines for herpes and dengue viral infections and even cancer.
The pandemic has also highlighted the need to bring COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to people living in remote places. This has led to innovations in vaccine delivery and preservation such as new formulations that do not require extremely cold temperatures. The biotech company Akston Biosciences is testing the effectiveness of a new protein-based vaccine for COVID-19 that is stable at room temperature for six months. These innovations can help distribute vaccines and treatments to people living in developing locales who are afflicted by other pathogens.
While the COVID-19 pandemic holds our focus, the invisible pandemics that persist will benefit from the technologies and innovations that have been developed in response to SARS-CoV-2. With these new technologies, we may emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with the tools we need to conquer other current and future pandemics.