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Volcano warnings can help anticipate the next epidemic.

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COVID-19 alarms and warnings can be improved by using insights learnt from natural disasters such as volcanoes. Volcano warning systems are well-established, and they can serve as best-practice ‘lessons’ for developing pandemic alert systems at all sizes. There are currently no standardized alarm systems in place for cross-border viral risks, but there are numerous lessons to be gained from the management of other dangers and threats. Scientific uncertainty, vast populations at risk, a variety of companies, government agencies, and non-profit organizations are all involved. To detect future pandemics, we need the same degree of surveillance and warning that we apply to volcanoes.

Many countries have developed alert-level systems to protect local communities as they transition from COVID-19 lockdown to normalcy. The majority of pandemic warnings are focused on the event after it has spread across the population, but a fundamental shift to anticipatory warnings is required. Hazards and risks such as extreme weather, tsunamis, terrorism, and chemical spills are currently addressed by existing warning systems. These warnings must be part of a larger system of observation and communication that includes multiple expert cohorts, tipping points, communication routes, and iconography in order to be successful and timely. It is also critical to standardize alert systems in order to communicate information across communities.

The UCL Warning Research Centre, which was recently established, intends to promote such collaboration. Collaboration across the multiple silos that exist in organizations, disciplines, and risks is essential for action, and the new centre strives to learn from other hazards and threats.

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