Stopping Pandemics Before They Start

Imagine that enemies possessed a class of weapons with which they attacked your people from time to time. Decades could go by with no attack, but eventually one would come. Imagine also that these weapons were growing more potent, and the attacks were becoming more frequent.

Now imagine that there was a way to protect your people from these threats. But making it would be expensive, and could take years. So it was not being made.

Each attack brought death, panic and an outcry: “Where is our defense? Why are we not protected?” But as soon as the attack passed, so did interest in preparing for the next one.

As you probably have guessed, this is about Ebola. And SARS. And Zika. And MERS, bird flu, swine flu, Lassa fever, Marburg, Rift Valley fever and the whole range of pathogens — including the ones we don’t know about yet — that can rapidly go from outbreak to epidemic to pandemic.

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These diseases are not going away. They are called zoonoses, which means they are harbored in animal populations — pigs, monkeys, bats, camels, birds — and so can never be eradicated.

Next January will begin the centenary of the 1918-19 pandemic swine flu known as Spanish flu. One estimate from the Centers for Disease Control says it killed between 20 million and 50 million people worldwide in three waves and infected 500 million people — a third of the world’s population then. The death toll exceeded that of World War I.

Today, the numbers might be even higher, and the spread of infection far quicker. According to mathematical modeling by the Gates Foundation, a virulent strain of airborne flu virus could spread to all major global capitals within 60 days. Within 250 days, it could kill more than 33 million people.

“There will be more and more outbreaks developing into big epidemics,” said Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the first head of Unaids. (He was also a member of the group that discovered the Ebola virus.) “With greater mobility, population pressures and climate change, we’ll see more of that.”

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