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High Stakes and Tough Decisions with 2019 Novel Coronavirus: One View of Pandemic Planning and Response

February 26, 2020 |  12:15PM  |  Bass Lecture Hall

On Wednesday, February 26, 2020, the Strauss Center and Clements Center welcomed Dr. Julie Schafer, Chief Technology Officer of the Flu Lab, for a discussion on governmental responses to pandemics. The talk was moderated by Dr. Michele Malvesti, Senior National Security Fellow at the Strauss Center.

You can watch a video of the event here.

After welcoming remarks by Bobby M. Chesney, Dr. Malvesti, who moderated the talk and Q&A, asked Dr. Shafer to provide an overview of coronaviruses generally, and to provide specific details on the variety of coronavirus causing the current outbreak: COVID-19. Dr. Shafer explained that coronaviruses are a big family of viruses and that most of the audience members had likely had some mild version of a coronavirus in their life, as many have the same symptoms as common colds. The COVID-19 strain, she noted, probably originated from bats and is also likely related to the SARS virus. It is often expressed as a severe respiratory illness, although there is a range of symptoms, which complicates diagnosis efforts. Dr. Shafer provided some of the key figures related to the current outbreak: about eighty thousand diagnoses and three thousand deaths, and further commented that South Korea’s collection and sharing of data on the outbreak has been of great help to health officials. Nonetheless, much more data will be needed to ensure proper forecasting of the trajectory of the outbreak. Such data will aid in ascertaining the optimal length of incubation periods and will also help researchers to assess the varied impact of the virus on different demographic groups. Attempts to collect data on COVID-19 have been further complicated by the fact that it is flu season in the northern hemisphere, which can mask emergence of other viruses.

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Dr. Shafer then discussed the distinction between an outbreak and a pandemic, explaining that an outbreak is the occurrence of a disease beyond expected levels, while a pandemic occurs when this outbreak begins to cross different geographic areas. She debunked the common misconception that a pandemic is determined by the degree of severity of a disease, underscoring that it is in fact determined by its frequency. Dr. Malvesti asked Dr. Shafer to comment on the fact that the flu has received much less attention than COVID-19, despite having caused many more deaths in the U.S. over the past year. Dr. Shafer attributed this disparate attention to the fact that familiarity breeds complacency, and that there are vaccinations and treatment available for the flu.

Dr. Shafer also provided an overview of the various policy entities involved in outbreak/pandemic management, such as the World Health Organization, different federal entities, and state and local governments, and further delineated their overlapping responsibilities for managing a health crisis. She also described the varieties of “community mitigation interventions,” including social distancing policies, school closures, and telework policies. She added that we should all begin considering the personal ramifications of such interventions so that we can be prepared, should the outbreak reach a threshold necessitating such measures.

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Dr. Shafer answered an array of questions from the audience, and recommend that audience members explore the wonderful array of resources made available on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

The emergence of the virus causing the COVID-19 epidemic in China (2019 novel coronavirus), with cases around the world, is the latest example of the significant human cost and destabilizing economic and social effects of infectious disease outbreaks. In an interconnected and interdependent world, outbreaks of influenza, Zika, or Ebola in one area can quickly be felt everywhere.

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Julie Schafer, PhD, MPH, is the Chief Technology Officer for Flu Lab, seeking to stretch the boundaries of how technology is used toward defeating influenza. Julie has held a number of leadership positions in the U.S. Government, including Chief of Staff, and later Director of Strategy, for the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Julie served in the White House National Security Council and has led complex influenza vaccine, therapeutic, and diagnostic advanced development programs.

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