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Opinion We had the tools to fight covid-19 before it arrived. Next time we might not be so lucky.

A health-care worker receives the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence, R.I., in December. (David Goldman/AP)
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Andrew P. Feinberg is a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins University Schools of Medicine, Engineering and Public Health.

The covid-19 pandemic caught humanity by surprise, but we were lucky because we already had tools to solve it. This almost certainly will not be the case next time. The time to devise ways to improve our odds in battling the next outbreak is now.

The novel coronavirus behind covid-19 is nearly identical to the SARS coronavirus that swept Hong Kong in 2003 and similar to the related MERS virus from 2012. As a result, scientists already knew before the pandemic hit how to make a good SARS vaccine and what specific piece of its genetic information was needed to create it. When the sequence of the pandemic virus was published last January, it took only 48 hours to devise the formula for the current vaccine. The months after that were mostly devoted to vaccine production and testing.

Fighting the next virus might not be so simple — and there will be another virus. Bats and other species frequently shuffle coronavirus genes that can lead to human pandemics, and human exposure to such animals cannot be eliminated. Even though the next virus could be much deadlier — and could strike in a year or two or five — it is clear that people are unlikely to tolerate another round of stringent measures such as those employed this year to fight the pandemic’s spread.

There is a scientific principle of induction that states that with enough similar data from independent but related experiments, one can infer in advance what the solution will be to a new problem. So we need to practice designing vaccines for new coronaviruses.

Here is a suggestion for how to do that: Invest much more in vaccine platform technology that is quickly adaptable, like the two RNA-based vaccines released by Pfizer and Moderna. Those vaccines were so rapidly successful because they were able to swap out the last threat for the current one, making them much easier to develop and scale up compared with traditional vaccines.

Vaccines could also be developed for the four other known endemic coronaviruses — and even for influenza and other viral strains — causing seasonal respiratory illness in millions of people. The seasonal common cold alone costs the economy nearly $25 billion per year, as well as causing great disruption to families, schools and workplaces.

Starting this work soon is especially important because the newly developed coronavirus vaccines could begin to fail against mutations of the current virus.

Another source of urgency in this arena: the threat of a deadly influenza pandemic like the one that tore across the globe in 1918, killing tens of millions of people. Fifteen years ago, public health planners, including epidemiologist Anthony S. Fauci, called for comprehensive preparations for influenza pandemics. There are RNA strategies for rapid vaccine development for influenza and other viruses, but we need to invest more substantially in them now. We also need to understand and reduce the risk for people who are more susceptible than others to the ravages of these viruses, so as to develop medications to reduce their severity.

While Congress has allocated more than $18 billion to Operation Warp Speed for vaccine development and production, so far only a few billion dollars have been appropriated to National Institutes of Health for basic science research in covid-19. The production of a vaccine was obviously a great success, but that does not help us enough to prepare for the next pandemic.

How should this research be funded? The mechanism could be, in part, emergency funding to agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which have already played a huge role in nurturing the new coronavirus vaccines. The incoming Biden administration has also proposed an Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health akin to the Defense Department’s DARPA project, which seeded development of GPS and the Internet. That could facilitate practical, lightning-fast growth of antiviral defense through government and private partnership.

I’ve been told by senior government and academic scientists that antiviral platform technology for future pandemics would cost about $3 billion per year in basic vaccine research. If another $2 billion were added for research on medications and testing, the cost would still be a drop in the bucket compared with the $16 trillion covid-19 may cost the U.S. economy. Consider it biological defense spending — though at less than 1 percent of conventional defense spending.

As bad as this pandemic has been, developing a vaccine for the next one could take twice as long, or more. And the disease could be twice as deadly, or worse. Let’s not wait for it to arrive before we act.

Read more:

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David Von Drehle: After a catastrophic 2020, the big story of 2021 could be a hopeful one

Joseph G. Allen: Yes, the new strain of coronavirus is alarming. But kids should still stay in school.

Paul Waldman: Yes, we should ‘politicize’ the pandemic

The Post’s View: The vaccine rollout is flagging. It must be accelerated.