Ready for a Global Pandemic?

The Trump Administration May Be Woefully Underprepared

Livestock officials dressed in bird flu protective gear in Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok, August 19, 2004. Sukree Sukplang / Reuters

Almost a century ago, a new and deadly strain of influenza spread around the world, shutting down schools and businesses and filling hospitals well beyond their capacity. In the end, the 1918 flu pandemic claimed the lives of approximately 50 to 100 million people, and it infected about one-third of the global population. Since then, medical care has vastly improved, and science has made major gains in vaccines and medicines. Yet the potential remains for a lethal strain of influenza or other contagious pathogen to overwhelm global health care systems by spreading at a rate that outpaces our ability to respond. In such a calamitous scenario, neither the United States nor other countries would be well enough equipped to contain it, increasing the potential for a true national or global catastrophe.

Consider the current H7N9 bird flu epidemic in China. It has infected more than 1,600 people since 2013, with a fatality rate of 40 percent. Although humans have contracted it mostly through contact with infected poultry, it is possible that limited person-to-person transmission has taken place but has yet to be detected. The great concern at the moment is that the virus will adapt, allowing for more efficient transmission; this would enable it to transform from a local outbreak to a global one.

Modern conditions make the scenario of a global pandemic more likely. Humans are encroaching on animal environments, raising chances for pathogens to adapt from animals to people. An increasing share of the planet lives in megacities, heightening the likelihood of person-to-person transmission of pathogens. The movement of people and microbes around the globe is more efficient than ever. The recent outbreaks of SARS, MERS, and Ebola are only small glimpses of how quickly a deadly virus can spread. Imagine if it were to happen with an even more fatal and more contagious pathogen.

Beyond these naturally occurring events, there is also the potential for terrorists or rogue nations to deliberately release dangerous microbes and trigger lethal epidemics or even pandemics. It is

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