Now, two years later, Ban has led the team at Walgreens, in partnership with Aegis Sciences Corporation, that launched the Walgreens COVID-19 Index, a new tool harnessing Walgreens testing data to track new and emerging variants, in near real time, across the country.
As we begin to shift from pandemic to endemic, Ban reflects on the last two years, how the COVID response has evolved with the virus and what a COVID endemic state will look like.
To say a lot has happened in two years is an understatement. Can you reflect on the collective pandemic response then?
If we look back to two years ago at this time, we were reliant upon data that wasn’t getting to us quickly enough to help with an overall mitigation strategy – the country, public health departments and companies like Walgreens. Now why is that? One, we didn’t have widespread use of a test that could identify COVID and second, the tests weren’t readily accessible. We didn’t have a clear picture of where COVID was spreading in this country. On top of that, there was no centralized approach to testing or a way to seamlessly share the data we were amassing. When you take all of that into consideration coupled with the fact that outcomes from contracting COVID-19 were very diverse and somewhat unknown to us at the point, the only option was to implement shelter-in-place orders. This reduced the likelihood of viral transmission and helped the country get the infrastructure in place to respond to a pandemic nationally.
….and where we are today?
We’re in an exceptionally different place as a country than we were almost two years ago. We have all the tools we need to shift from pandemic to endemic – life-saving vaccines, robust testing and data and antivirals for those who are at high risk of severe illness. If you think about late March 2020, Walgreens stood up one of the first PCR testing sites in the country, now Walgreens alone has over 7,000 testing locations. Not only that, but rapid, at-home tests are readily available so that individuals can get results quickly. We’ve also collectively watched how viruses behave, which is to say that they mutate. As long as there are available hosts the virus will mutate, spread and form new variants. We now have the data to see this in near real-time and anticipate outbreaks more quickly. All of this information helps us to customize our response efforts.
We recently launched the Walgreens COVID-19 Index. What will it do and is it like the Walgreens Flu Index?
When we talk about the Walgreens Flu Index, we’re talking about “Where is the flu?” And that’s very useful because it's not the same across the country. It’s important to know where flu outbreaks are occurring, and to a certain extent, the Walgreens COVID-19 Index does the same thing but goes a step further. Walgreens sends COVID-19 PCR testing from over 5,000 testing locations across the country to the Aegis Sciences Corporation. They take the results and do something called “Next Generation Sequencing,” which goes beyond saying if the sample is positive, and identifies what variant or sub-variant it is.
What tools do we need to respond to COVID-19 when it becomes endemic?
In an endemic state, tracking variants will be critically important because treatment modalities may change depending upon the variant. Public health response may be different depending on how contagious and severe a variant turns out to be. In recent weeks, there have been concerns about a sub-variant of omicron called BA.2 or “stealth omicron.” We’re monitoring closely, and it’s important to track its trajectory so that we can use public health measures to mitigate its spread.
Why is identifying COVID-19 variants so important?
We’re going to have to navigate COVID for the next several years, and probably for the rest of our lives. This is an important step toward having national surveillance in place, and ideally a surveillance system would encompass all respiratory viruses – flu, COVID, RSV and others. Is it the end all and be all in national surveillance right now? No, but it is an important contribution? I believe that it is, and that’s why we’re so grateful to all our team members who have made our COVID-19 testing and this Index happen.
What are some of your takeaways from the pandemic?
I think we’ll look back and see that we got mRNA vaccines right. Not just for COVID-19 but because the development of this type of technology will enable so many other medical breakthroughs. The efficiency of vaccine development and how quickly they were available is incredible, and I think with pandemic fatigue we lose sight of that.
Through efforts like the COVID-19 Index, we’re also building infrastructure for a strong surveillance system. Eventually, we’d like to have even more localized information and share these data with so many other organizations that can benefit from it.
Most importantly, my personal takeaway is the continued pride I have in Walgreens team members. Walgreens has been a leader in the nationwide response to COVID-19 from the outset, and everything we’ve accomplished is because of our team members – their hard work, personal sacrifices and dedication to the health of the communities where they live and work, and the nation at large. Truly, the pandemic has showed communities the power of their local pharmacy and the role pharmacists can play in improving health outcomes.