Predicting the next deadly pandemic

Published: Jul. 3, 2020 at 7:24 AM EDT

The U.S. is likely just days away from diagnosing its three-millionth coronavirus case. While leaders scramble to contain this crisis, experts say we need to do more to immunize ourselves against the next unknown deadly pathogen.

How society prepares and responds to an emerging infectious disease can be deadlier than the bug itself. That’s one of the disturbing warnings in Journalist Lara Salahi’s book, “Outbreak Culture”

“We absolutely have to be thinking about the next threat,” she said, "major outbreaks expose every vulnerability of health systems.”

Her book chronicles the Ebola epidemic, and reveals historical patterns of dysfunction in responses to large-scale epidemics. She argues governments chronically under-fund infection prevention before an outbreak begins, and downplay risks once it does.

But, Salahi said early warning systems can work, “scientists have been great about projecting what the next threats will be.” They do so through surveillance, tracing cases, and maintaining a watch list of worrisome pathogens.

Just this week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said health officials are monitoring a flu strain carried by pigs in China. He told U.S. Senators at the committee hearing the virus looks to be capable of infecting humans though they have not seen a case yet.

Salahi said critical information isn’t always shared though, and good predictions can’t overcome readiness shortfalls in hospital capacity and protective equipment.

“The investment we make in science is pivotal, it’s important, has to be sustained,” said Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. BIO is the largest trade group representing pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions.

McMurry-Heath argues more government-funded research would pay dividends, shortening development time for tests and treatments once a new threat does emerge. Every second counts, "what we know about the respiratory-transmitted viruses, is that their spread can be devastatingly fast and effective."

Experts said problems don’t disappear once a pandemic is over. Health care systems are built for normal circumstances and associated spikes in physical and mental health conditions can linger long after a bug is zapped.

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