The World Knows an Apocalyptic Pandemic Is Coming

[Laurie Garrett | Foreign Policy | September 20, 2019

The World Knows an Apocalyptic Pandemic Is Coming. But nobody is interested in doing anything about it.

A new independent report compiled at the request of the United Nations secretary-general warns that there is a "very real threat" of a pandemic sweeping the planet, killing up to 80 million people. A deadly pathogen, spread airborne around the world, the report says, could wipe out almost 5 percent of the global economy. And we're not ready. The ominous analysis was compiled by an independent panel, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB), which was assembled last year in response to a request from the office of the U.N. secretary-general, and convened jointly by the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO). Co-chaired by the former WHO head and former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and the head of the international Red Cross, Elhadj As Sy, the GPMB commissioned expert studies and issued a scathing attack on the political, financial, and logistical state of pandemic preparedness affairs.

Laurie Garrett"Preparedness is hampered by the lack of continued political will at all levels," read the report. "Although national leaders respond to health crises when fear and panic grow strong enough, most countries do not devote the consistent energy and resources needed to keep outbreaks from escalating into disasters." With no intention of degrading the GPMB's effort, I must sadly say that this core message has been shouted from the rafters many times before, with little discernable impact on tone-deaf political leaders, financial enterprises, or multinational institutions. There's no reason to think this time will be any different. It's hard to know what, shy of a genuinely devastating pandemic of killer influenza or some currently unknown microbe, will motivate global leaders to take microscopic threats seriously.

In May 1989, Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg gathered fellow Nobelists and a roster of extraordinary virus-hunters for a three-day meeting in Washington to consider a then bold hypothesis that viruses, far from being vanquished by modern medicine, were actually surging worldwide in animals and people, often in forms never previously seen. And air travel increasingly meant that an outbreak in an obscure location could spread to large cities, even make its way around the world. At the time, the exploding HIV/AIDS epidemic focused collective attention: If the incurable virus could claim millions of lives, what other threats might lurk? During the gathering I felt tensions rise by the hour, as the volume of evidence grew in support of the dire hypothesis...