The next pathogen is inevitable. Immunity to stop COVID-19 and avert future crises, requires resources and societal will. It's a tall order.

The next pathogen is inevitable. The good news: the human immune system is a dynamic information system that can be boosted and educated. Getting ready, and staying ready, means shifting how the global “we” talks about, and plan for, survival.

Advances and breakthroughs can appear to come out of nowhere but the reality is the science of the last 20 months is built on layers and layers of research from all over the country and world.

“Amazing capacity of the human body”

Peek into the majesty and potential of the human immune system with James Crowe Jr., MD, the director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center, who was featured on “60 minutes” for his game-changing expertise in MRNA and monoclonal antibodies. A recent study of the monoclonal antibody treatments developed in Crowe’s lab and licensed by AstraZeneca showed efficacy in preventing symptomatic Covid-19.

“So the capabilities of the human immune system, I would say are, it’s the largest information system on the planet. It’s bigger than super computers can deal with. It’s more than all the stars in the galaxy, the human immune system within your own body is an enormous information system that can deal with anything that comes along,” says Crowe.

Future Forward

Crowe and his colleagues have a list of pathogens that they suspect could lead to pandemics or epidemics in the future. Their research preparation initiative around those pathogens is called AHEAD 100, for Advanced Human Epidemic Antibody Defenses. Getting societies ready takes resources and resolve from governments, the business sector, research institutions and citizens. Hear what it will take to be ready to strike the moment the next pathogen emerges.

“So how should we do it in the future? … There’s been an outbreak we probably need to get in there more quickly. How can we get in there more quickly? But we do it all kind of with our own resources, for the most part. It shouldn’t be that way, right?,” says Robert Carnahan, PhD, associate director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center.

Getting to trust and “yes”

“The infrastructure that allows scientists to equip the human immune system to respond to pathogens is a heavyweight mission. So, too, is getting communities on board with what it takes to blunt the spread of disease.

“I do think we need to be able to discuss science in a way that it’s not a political thing or a religious thing. You can have both, you can have religion and science. And so I think that’s one of the things that we need to do going forward so that when we do communicate, it’s not either/or, it’s a spectrum. One of the things that always amazes me, people were like, ‘I’m not getting a vaccine.’ Or, ‘I’m not wearing a mask because I trust God.’ I trust God. And I wear my seatbelt too. I don’t think it’s an either/or I think it’s part of the spectrum. God has given us these gifts,” says H. Keipp Talbot, MD, MPH, associate professor of Medicine and Health Policy, who specializes in adult infectious diseases and sits on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

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More About Our Contributors

Dr. James Crowe

James Crowe, M.D., is Ann Scott Carell Chair in the Departments of Pediatrics and Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is also director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center.

Dr. Robert Carnahan

Robert Carnahan, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Departments of Pediatrics and Radiology and Radiological Sciences at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He is also associate director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Center.

Dr. Keipp Talbot

Helen "Keipp" Talbot, M.D., MPH, is an Associate Professor of Medicine in the Department of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases.