In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to unprecedented health, societal and economic consequences, a European Union (EU) Horizon 2020-funded research project on Pandemic Preparedness and Response (PANDEM-2) is putting considerable efforts into ensuring we are better prepared for future health threats.  

Resolution 76/257 of the United Nations General Assembly, adopted in March 2022, urged Member States to ensure “effective domestic resource mobilization as well as better allocation and use of resources with adequate financing” for issues such as pandemic preparedness “through close collaboration” with stakeholders like academia.

Hence, the role of institutions of higher education and their research capabilities is fundamental in this regard. And while pandemics, by definition, take place across borders, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that our capacities to prepare for and respond to pandemics were largely national-based. 

Rather than one unified approach from all EU Member States, individual countries responded to the pandemic differently. As a result, those behind PANDEM-2 argue that the pandemic highlighted vulnerabilities in this response. What is required now, they say, is a more resilient, whole EU approach to managing future pandemics.

The PANDEM-2 project aims to enhance EU Member States’ cross-border capacity through communication, data surveillance, training, and response innovations. This line of research has been ongoing pre-COVID. Indeed, this project is based on the phase 1 project PANDEM, which commenced in 2015 and concluded in 2017, long before the ongoing pandemic. 

The 18-month project identified research gaps in governance, surveillance, and communications. A key output of PANDEM was a methodology that addresses the challenge of building capacity for pandemic management in a cross-border, multi-sectoral context. PANDEM-2 is wholly based on these critical recommendations.

The PANDEM-2 consortium comprises 19 European partners with expertise in several key areas. The project aims to generate, using research outputs, an IT solution that will include a training platform, data hub, and communication resources to enable pandemic managers to prepare for different scenarios and possible responses to health emergencies. 

These technologies are being developed by project partners and experts in the field, including those of the National University of Ireland – Galway (NUI-Galway), a United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) member institution in Ireland. The PANDEM-2 solution will enable the integration of pandemic-relevant data from multiple sources.

Sources like international and national systems, participative surveillance platforms, laboratory systems, and social media. This data will be accessible and analyzed via an online dashboard designed and built to support the specific needs of public health agencies in the EU Member States, complementing their already existing information systems. 

Tools for pandemic prediction and resource modeling, in addition to workforce capacity mapping, will improve preparedness and planning of critical resources, including hospital beds and ventilators, to enable pandemic managers to be as well-positioned as possible for future pandemics. 

With a prototype created, this open-source machine learning tool will be easy to install and customize and routinely collect data. PANDEM-2 will give first-responders, public health professionals, and policymakers the chance to prepare for and manage the next pandemic with best practices and interoperability built into the system’s core.

The project is coordinated by global health expert Professor Máire Connolly from NUI-Galway, who has extensive previous experience with the World Health Organization and the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination team, including several assignments in the field.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating economic, social, and health impacts in many countries worldwide. And the PANDEM-2 project aims to better prepare the EU Member States for future pandemics through innovations in technology, training, and cross-border collaboration,” commented Professor Connolly.

“The state-of-the-art tool developed by PANDEM-2 have the potential to transform how Europe prepares for future large-scale healthcare crises through improved analysis of surveillance and contact tracing data, innovative pandemic modeling, better resource allocation, and training of pandemic managers using simulations across Europe,” she added.

Professor Connolly said, regarding her expectations, that she hopes that “in the event of another pandemic in the future, our tool will equip health experts and policymakers with the most comprehensive, accurate, up-to-the-minute data they will need to make better and well-informed decisions.’’