On March 28, 2020, Noubar Afeyan and Ruben Vardanyan, Co-Founders of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, and Lord Ara Darzi, Chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, participated in a special seminar dedicated to the global outbreak of COVID-19 and organized on the Futures Studio discussion platform.
The Aurora Co-Founders and Selection Committee Chair were joined by Arsen Torosyan, Minister of Health of the Republic of Armenia; Dr. David Nabarro, the World Health Organization Special Envoy for COVID-19, and André Andonian, Board Member of McKinsey & Company Inc. Global. Panelists shared their thoughts on how the ongoing pandemic affects various aspects of our lives and discussed the potential challenges the world is going to face in the months and years to come.
The discussion was moderated by Ruben Vardanyan, who greeted the speakers and participants and asked David Nabarro to offer a brief account of where we were with the pandemic and the trajectory it followed, as well as list the particular actions that are or can be taken in order to properly contain the situation.
Dr. Nabarro spoke from the place of knowledge when he warned that “to base our projections for COVID-19 on our knowledge of other viruses, like Ebola, would be unwise, because it behaves differently. In the long term, the humanity will have to live with this virus, as it is unlikely that there will be enough people with herd immunity soon. Countries everywhere need to remain on permanent alert to suppress the outbreaks, and we’ll have to live with that.” Dr. Nabarro also added that “strong international cooperation is crucial but may be hard to achieve due to reasons that have nothing do to with COVID-19.”
Amidst the global outbreak, Aurora has recently announced that it would provide ten lung ventilation devices to the Armenian hospitals using the funds raised via #AraratChallenge campaign. When describing the current situation in the country, Arsen Torosyan, Minister of Health, Armenia, said they were forced to act very quickly, but so far, the national response to the health crisis has been adequate. He also brought up the importance of proper equipment and the struggle to get it.
“If the doctors and nurses get infected, they transmit the disease in the hospital, so personal protection equipment is very important. We try to buy PPEs from China, but there are many logistical problems due to borders being closed and other limitations in place. The Armenian community and Diaspora also help us, mainly from the US, and we continue to see how they can support us, even though the US is now another hotspot. What we’re doing now is damage control, essentially, for the healthcare system, economy and other aspects. We have to be ready for it in the long-term,” noted Minister Torosyan.
Lord Ara Darzi, Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London and Chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee, addressed another common marker of modern times – fear and anxiety. “These are challenging times. Fear is not an issue that you can manage easily. The virus is still in the driving seat; it is well ahead of us, whatever we’re trying to do,” said Lord Darzi. “No healthcare system in the world, even the best one, has the capacity to deal with 15-20% of the population who get a severe disease. The only thing we could do is to reduce the peak and extend the curve so we could at least manage the demand in terms of hospital beds.”
Noubar Afeyan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and Founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, is very close to the frontline of the fight with COVID-19 as Moderna Therapeutics, a biotech company he cofounded, is working on developing the vaccine for the new virus. “This is nothing short of a global biological war. This is not biological in the sense of man-made, but this is very much an all-out biological war. This biological war is with precedence, except it hasn’t affected humanity quite in this visible way,” he said, adding that developing the vaccine was “absolutely not a competition between different companies and different approaches. This is basically a competition between us and the virus.”
Finally, Noubar Afeyan drew some parallels between the crisis all of humanity is facing right now and the traumatic events the Armenians have experienced more than a century ago. “The survival instincts that we all have will be essential to make this battle possible. The cautious optimism that we have to not give up – all of that is familiar to many of us, who in our own family stories have had to go through a struggle. Anyone who thinks this is just a bad nightmare and the moment we wake up, we will go back to the same thing, I’m afraid is going to be very disappointed,” he said.
André Andonian, Board Member of McKinsey & Company Inc. Global, lamented that information was lacking for experts to give a definite answer to the questions the world has for them, but confirmed that his company, among others, was “looking at the facts and developing different scenarios, and the scenarios depend on safeguarding lives and saving livelihood, the way of crating value, having jobs and so on. Every crisis is an opportunity. First, we need to survive this – and this is true for individuals, governments and countries. Second, when is the right time to return to work? We need to think about that and getting the economy going. But the future will not look the same.”
Summarizing the discussion, impact investor and social entrepreneur Ruben Vardanyan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, said: “Unfortunately, one of the challenges that we are facing [is that] people don’t know which part of it they should take care of [first]. Because it’s a perfect storm when you have so many issues that need to be handled. One thing will become important – to really talk to each other, to learn to share experience. People from all over the world are willing to share their knowledge, share their experiences to help others.”