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The COVID-19 vaccine era is here. What comes next is complicated.

In the third session of the Stanford China Economic Forum, top medical experts from Stanford and China convened to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.

The end is finally in sight. But even as the world celebrates the mass rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, a panel of top medical experts convened by Stanford this week agreed that it could be another two years before life as we knew it before the pandemic returns.

The biggest reason, they said, is globalization. Just as the world’s interconnectedness fueled the pandemic, it will now dictate the timing of its ultimate defeat. “We are only as safe as the least safe country on Earth,” Gabriel Leung, the Dean of Medicine at the University of Hong Kong, told an online-only audience who gathered Dec. 10 for the final session of the 2020 Stanford China Economic Forum.

“We can’t let our guard down,” Leung added. “[These] first-generation vaccines are going to be extremely useful, but they will not make this go away.”

screenshot of event
Lloyd Minor (top left), Grace Lee (top right), Gabriel Leung (bottom right), Tony Mok (bottom left)

Leung was joined on the panel by Grace Lee, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford School of Medicine and a member of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee on vaccine use in the United States, and Tony Mok, who chairs the clinical oncology department at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

The annual forum — hosted by Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and the Stanford King Center on Global Development — was reconfigured into three online-only sessions this year due to the pandemic. Previous panels from this fall looked at U.S.-China relations under President-elect Joe Biden and the future of business education.

Lessons for future health crises

Lloyd Minor, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine, moderated the final meeting, about the future of healthcare post-pandemic. Like other panel members, he applauded what he described as “unprecedented levels of cooperation” that are producing what data indicate are safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. “I’m optimistic that these experiences will change the future of healthcare for the better.”

The role of technology in this crisis, the panelists agreed, has forever altered disease response. “We have actually established a ready-to-make vaccine platform” that will enable quick and efficient responses to future pandemics, said Mok.

Still, he and the other panelists said that work remains to end the pandemic and learn from it. The biggest challenge now, according to the panelists, is figuring out how to manufacture vaccines on a mass scale and distribute them equitably and safely across the globe.

“We’re asking our public health colleagues to mount the most complex immunization initiative ever launched,” said Lee, “and to do it in short order without necessarily sufficient funding or infrastructure.” She called on researchers to spend the next three to five years working on innovations in disease prevention that also ensure equity — not just in health outcomes but also access to education.

Vaccines aside, Dean Minor said there are other COVID-19 lessons worth considering — both for understanding what’s happening today, but also for preparing for future pandemics. 

“The pandemic has created so many challenges, but it has also shown what we can achieve when we work together,” the dean said. “It’s that same spirit that makes the Stanford China Economic Forum so special.”

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