Search for content, post, videos

Commentary: Pandemic Preparedness

Staffan Svärd, Professor, Scientific Lead for SciLifeLab’s Pandemic Laboratory Preparedness Capability, writes about how lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic can increase our pandemic preparedness.

Early in the pandemic, SciLifeLab, together with Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, launched a major national COVID-19 research program. Today SciLifeLab has a government mandate to coordinate and expand the laboratory capability in the event of future pandemics. Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the national perspective on the work going forward, will be instrumental to increase Sweden’s preparedness for future pandemics.

“Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the national perspective on the work going forward, will be instrumental to increase Sweden’s preparedness for future pandemics.”

It was clear that COVID-19 constituted a global social challenge that could only be fought with a trans-disciplinary knowledge-based effort. However, early on during the pandemic this was far from reality. As a national resource of research infrastructure and a strong science community, SciLifeLab was well set to tackle COVID-19. With financial support from Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, SciLifeLab launched calls for academic research programs in which the first projects were funded in March 2020, through an ultra-rapid review process, and spanned from virus diagnostics, virus evolution, immunology, and host biomarkers, to drug development and unbiased quantitation of virus in the wastewater. Importantly, individual projects were grouped together into research programs and funded projects were asked to collaborate and share data, in many cases before publication.


SciLifeLab Data Centre launched the Swedish COVID-19 Data Portal in June 2020, commissioned by the Swedish Research Council. This later became the Pandemic Preparedness portal and even today maintains real-time data resources, provides information about available datasets, tools, services, and supports researchers working on pandemic preparedness.

Overall, the COVID-19 research program funded 101 separate research projects with the following five unique synergies:

1) The SciLifeLab national infrastructure for use in COVID-19 research and testing was prioritized

2) As the situation demanded rapid action, the speed of the launch of research grants was critically important

3) Bigger impact was achieved through urging scientists to collaborate in a battle against the virus

4) Real-time data sharing and open data handling was expected from funded scientists

5) The ways and means of data sharing were provided via common data tools and IT support

Thus, this program provided inspiration for any future research program on any topic to duplicate to achieve rapid, impactful results.


The COVID-19 research programs have created synergy through collaborations between researchers with expertise from different areas of life science.

In brief, the achievements can be summarized as:

1. Providing infrastructure and method development for diagnosing viral infection and virus-induced immunity. This involved large-scale PCR testing and sequencing and detection of circulating antibodies against SARS-CoV2 and its variants. These results were important for societal recommendations and vaccine programs.

2. Development of methods to facilitate quick and inexpensive diagnostics.

3. Vaccine research with a focus on new virus variants.

4. Monitoring of virus levels in the wastewater. This became critical for monitoring the phases of the pandemic, from their initiation to their end.

5. Novel staring points for drug development through the identification of an inhibitor against SARS-CoV-2’s main protein component. The discovery can be used in the development of drugs aimed at SARS-CoV2 as well as other coronaviruses.

In 2020, SciLifeLab was tasked by the government to ensure increased national coordination of laboratory capability in order to be better prepared for future pandemics. SciLifeLab’s Pandemic Laboratory Preparedness capability (PLP) creates a network for pandemic laboratory preparedness and acts to meet society’s need for efficient use of resources, training, education, propagation of skills and setting up of technologies and equipment. The purpose is to support authorities, municipalities and regions in the effort to strengthen laboratory preparedness through research, competence-building and technological development. The pandemic created the need for strengthened technological units for molecular analysis of the virus and host defense. This requires collaborative efforts between health care and academia, as well as between different academic disciplines. Furthermore, there is a need to advance how data is made available, and to increase the capacity to analyze big data. The Pandemic Laboratory Preparedness initiative was launched in dialogue with the Public Health Agency of Sweden.

It will take time before we are able to see the full-scale and long-term effects of the pandemic. In the current pandemic phase, we collect lessons learned to increase our preparedness for the next similar crisis. Through the investment made in COVID-19 research at a molecular, cell, patient, population and ecosystem level, we can better understand the pandemic dynamics, monitor waves of virus variants, diagnose and treat patients and eventually formulate public health recommendations.

Lessons and insights

Without touching on all lessons learned from the pandemic, some lessons and insights for the next “round” could be:

Collaboration on all levels is key: From the microscale of cross-scientific collaboration within the research community, to the national effort within the ecosystem of healthcare, industry, and authorities.

Basic research provides the basis for solutions to societal challenges: The rapid support from Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation was crucial for Sweden to be able to take a broad approach to meet such a complex challenge.

Researchers are well trained to reconfigure their expertise and tools for a new challenge: From technology development to molecular analyses and novel applications – the scientific community has proved to be extremely quick to find new ways to use their expertise to achieve a common goal.

The necessity of sustainable data management: The need for transparent and sustainable use, sharing and storing of research data cannot be overestimated. We will need to support the development of national data resources and multi-dimensional data management and integration for each challenge.

Photo of Staffan Svärd: Mark Harris