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Illustrated portrait of Nikki Teran Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Nikki Teran wants to stop the next pandemic

Teran worries the government isn’t doing enough to address biosecurity risks. She’s pushing to change that.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Nearly four years after the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread from Wuhan, some 28 million people worldwide have died prematurely in the ensuing pandemic. Governments spent trillions managing the public health emergency, the economic emergency, and the challenge to social order posed by the disease.

Yet there’s little indication that governments, especially the US government, are making the modest investments necessary to prevent another virus from killing tens of millions of people (or even more). The need is great: A bipartisan group of former government officials (including noted conservatives like former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge) has called for a $10 billion annual investment in biodefense over the next decade. Congress has not authorized anything close to this.

Nikki Teran wants to change that. A geneticist by training with a PhD from Stanford, Teran spent much of 2023 working to help set up Blueprint Biosecurity, a new initiative that identifies and advances interventions to prevent pandemics. There are solutions like far-ultraviolet germicidal light that can kill germs without hurting people; expanded genomic surveillance to detect the emergence and spread of pathogens; and better personal protective equipment, like reusable masks that can be tightly fit to individual people’s faces.

At the Institute for Progress, a DC-based think tank (see fellow Future Perfect 50 inductees Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp) where she is now a senior biosecurity fellow, Teran has laid out some of what this agenda could look like, arguing that the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) in the Department of Health and Human Services is woefully underfunded and, with proper funding and authority, could be a key actor in preventing future pandemics.

The agency played a key role in developing vaccines and therapies during the Covid-19 crisis: It financially backed the Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, as well as Paxlovid, which has become the preferred early therapy for Covid. Teran wants the agency to have more consistent funding and the authority to make more flexible deals with pharmaceutical companies and other firms to “invest in the biotech industry at the same pace as venture capital firms. While venture capitalists want to steer the market for profit, BARDA can steer the market to save lives.”

“Nikki has quickly become a go-to resource on biosecurity in DC,” Sam Bell, a veteran DC policy entrepreneur and co-founder of Employ America who worked with Teran on setting up Blueprint Bio, told me. “That’s because she’s not only incredibly smart but curious about the practical details of policy implementation and is really committed to straightforward science communication.”

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