COVID-19 Pandemic as Opportunity to Ensure More Successful Future for Science, Public Health

In a new commentary published in JAMA, authors say that the missteps and miscommunications that have stymied a more effective U.S. and global response to the COVID-19 pandemic bring into sharp focus the deficiencies in governance systems of the U.S. public health and scientific institutions.

As Narayan, et al. (2021) note, "With the advent of the 21st century, science and technology were expected to be formidable forces that would hopefully improve population health and well-being. Furthermore, these forces would drive a rapidly changing and interconnected world, with communities and nations worldwide sharing common rewards (e.g., economic development, health, and welfare) and facing common risks (eg, pandemics, chronic noncommunicable diseases, environmental damage, nuclear weapons, climate change). In this context, effective governance and communications were to be cornerstones for delivering the promise of science and technology for enhancing public health. Yet the response to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic in the U.S., one of the world’s science and technological powerhouses, has not realized these hopes. Furthermore, the pandemic has exposed critical weaknesses in the institutional systems specifically intended to protect and harness science and technology to promote personal and public health. The pandemic is thus a clarion call for a thoughtful examination of ways to bolster and modernize systems that support and guide science, technology, and public health. History suggests that major crises, such as wars, natural disasters, and pandemics can serve as a tipping point for proactive collective action. For example, reflection and lessons in the aftermath of World War II led to the creation of progressive institutions for that time, such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the National Health Services in the UK. The current moment presents an opportunity to think boldly and to imagine a better world beyond the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic."

The authors continue, "Despite enormous scientific and technological accomplishments, such as the rapid development and testing of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, the response to the pandemic has unveiled vulnerabilities in society and in the scientific independence of public health institutions. There have been escalating attacks on science and expert opinion, an intrusion of partisan politics into public agencies, especially the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and absence of national coordination. These venerable and trusted public health institutions have become targets of direct and dangerous partisan political interference, which has often discredited science, in general, and the scientific independence and voice, in particular, of these institutions. An added problem has been the spread of misinformation in social media, which has also undermined public trust in science and public health communication. It is concerning that large sections of society have displayed vulnerability to this erroneous information. There have been warnings about this possibility, as the U.S. and other countries built a societal order based on science and yet ignore broader science education of the population."

They continue, "The U.S. must enhance knowledge and understanding of science and the scientific method to repair public trust in science and relevant institutions. Public trust in and understanding of science along with effective communication from trusted sources are critical to the implementation of evidence-based interventions to promote health and prevent disease. More immediate measures are needed to strengthen nonpartisan political commitment for public health and to protect the scientific independence and voice of public health institutions. With the vision of facilitating serious thought across major disciplines and broad divisions of society, below are a series of questions (and some recommendations) that need thoughtful and careful deliberation. It may not be possible to address each one, so prioritization will be important, as well as acknowledging that effective approaches to these questions may be elusive."

Reference: Narayan KMV, Curran JW and Foege WH, The COVID-19 Pandemic as an Opportunity to Ensure a More Successful Future for Science and Public Health. JAMA. 2021;325(6):525-526. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.23479

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