We Had Every Reason to Be Prepared for This Pandemic

Elad Simchayoff

Time and time again, experts foretold of a coronavirus-type outbreak

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Event 201

On a Friday morning, October 18, 2019, 15 international key figures in business, government, and public health assembled at the luxurious New York Pierre Hotel. At least 130 people came to watch the 3.5-hour event put on by The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the World Economic Forum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The participants were asked to debate, form a strategy, discuss possible outcomes, tackle challenges, and find solutions all based on a scripted, imaginary scenario. Yawn, right? Well, not quite. For “Event 201,” the scenario that was chosen started with a fake news bulletin that went something like this: a new and unknown disease, modeled largely on SARS, is causing a worldwide pandemic. It originated by bats, transmitted to pigs, and then humans. There’s no vaccine, no drug, the human population is all susceptible.” The made-up — yes, made-up — scenario ends a year and a half after the initial outbreak, with 65 million casualties and a devastating effect on the economy.

Writing, meet the wall

The existing volume of literature, texts, articles, and research warning against a flu-like virus that would have a devastating effect on the respiratory system and would spread quickly throughout the world is shocking.

In 2012, Rand Corporation published research entitled “Threats Without Threateners?” in which they looked at three potential world threats not necessarily set into motion by a human hand. Of the three (climate change, water scarcity, and pandemics), the loudest alarm surfaced from the potential harm a pandemic might cause in the near future.

In 2013, the Senate Intelligence Committee published the worldwide threat assessment paper. Within the 34-page document sits an alarming prediction: “An easily transmissible, novel respiratory pathogen that kills or incapacitates more than 1% of its victims is among the most disruptive events possible. Such an outbreak would result in a global pandemic that causes suffering and death in every corner of the world, probably in fewer than six months. This is not a hypothetical threat. History is replete with examples of pathogens sweeping populations that lack immunity, causing political and economic upheaval, and influencing the outcomes of wars.” This same stern warning was included in the committee’s 2014 report, as well as the one after that.

Everything was known, everything was taken into account to an unbelievable precision. So how on earth is it possible that we are today living in a nine-year-old Damon/Paltrow movie?

Now, some of you must be thinking, who even reads a Senate Intelligence Committee or advisory body research findings? Maybe these predictions were drafted only for a few experts? In fact, some 50 million people watched Bill Gates’ TED talk five years ago, in which he described viruses as a threat bigger than missiles to humankind. In a video that has since gone viral, Gates says: “So next time, we might not be so lucky. You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they’re infectious that they get on a plane or they go to a market.”

Let’s rewind to 2011.

The movie Contagion was released to positive reviews and made $136.5 million. Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, and many other talented and well-known actors starred in the film that tells the story of an outbreak of a virus, transmitted from human to human by respiratory droplets which originated in bats in the Far East. Spoiler alert: It’s not a comedy.

The writing has been spread in large, bold, bright letters on every wall possible. From pop culture to academia, from the security community to the medical field. Everything was known, everything was taken into account to an unbelievable precision. So how on earth is it possible that we are today living in a nine-year-old Damon/Paltrow movie?

A man with a bow tie

At the beginning of March, Dr. Peter Hotez spoke in front of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Capitol Hill. His hair was a bit messy, his jacket seemed big, and he wore thin, round glasses and a very distinctive dotted bow tie. If you had to draw a scientist, you’d probably draw him. Hotez could have been a hero today. As the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, he has been working with his team on a vaccine for a corona type virus for years.He reached a breakthrough point in 2016, but also reached a problem he couldn’t solve: No one was willing to invest in his research. With no money left, Hotez couldn’t move forward to clinical trials.

In January 2020, data began to emerge out of China regarding a new type of coronavirus. Hotez saw the figures and couldn’t believe it. His work could have resulted in a formula that — with a few tweaks — would turn into a Covid-19 vaccine. It could have happened but didn’t. The work went unfinished, nobody wanted to invest. Even in today’s climate, Hotez said, a potential investor told him he’d prefer to wait and see whether Covid-19 is actually here to stay before he decides whether to invest in a vaccine. The best business, after all, is repeat business.

Health is a business and an extremely expensive one at that. Investments in research and development naturally shift toward places that can deliver the highest rate of return. When Ebola broke out in 2014, researchers around the world worked tirelessly to find a vaccine only to determine, months later, that the outbreak was over and their work was, mainly, no longer relevant.

Production in the medical industry is also very expensive, and so in the past few years, most global production has relocated to China and India where labor is cheaper. Some 40% of the key components (APIs) for antibiotics used in the U.S. are made in China. These components are then moved to India, which manufactures 80% of the drugs. This causes a big problem, as Erin Fox, senior director of drug information from the University of Utah explained to Forbes: “If China and India decided to simply stop selling raw material to the U.S. — we would not be able to make about 80% of the drugs that we need.”

That’s not all. This year, we have seen what happens when an outbreak paralyzes China. Personal protective equipment is mostly manufactured there and when factories closed in Shanghai and Shenzhen, doctors and nurses in Milan and Madrid were forced to wear trash bags as protection suits.

Hearing the heartbreaking stories makes one think that we would never forget, but history repeats, we have forgotten before.

Déjà vu

Humanity has faced other pandemics before. We are currently dealing with a difficult, complex disease — while also carrying a long line of previous illnesses on our back. We’ve had many reasons to be better prepared for this outbreak, namely: the Spanish flu of 1918, Asian flu of 1957, Hong Kong flu of 1968, Russian flu of 1977, SARS of 2002, bird flu of 2007, swine flu (H1N1) of 2009, Ebola of 2014, Zika of 2015, and that’s not even the full list. We have been tackling infectious diseases since the beginning of time. We have gotten better, but so have the viruses.

International organizations are carrying the outbreaks of the past as a traumatic weight, and yet it seems like barely anything has changed. After the swine flu outbreak, the EU blamed the WHO for wasting public funds, promoting unjustified scares and fears, and allowing improper relations between doctors and pharmaceutical companies. “(It’s) a pandemic that never was,” wrote British MP, Paul Flynn. After the Ebola outbreak, the WHO got blamed again. This time, critics claimed the organization was too slow to act. WHO officials struck back, claiming that despite its very clear warnings, some countries decided not to act. A complete reform of the way WHO deals with international outbreaks was agreed upon. “This is an international wake-up call,” said the experts. A special committee was formed, and in its first annual report, published in September 2019, the conclusion was very clear: The world is not ready for a global pandemic.

“For too long, we have allowed a cycle of panic and neglect when it comes to pandemics: We ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides. It is well past time to act.” — WHO special report, 2019.

Let’s do better

The knowledge of a coronavirus waiting to strike was there, the problems were known, the solutions were clear, and yet here we are — mired in a global, deadly battle with Covid-19. Watching the rising figures in the United States, the U.K., and many other places is a blow to the stomach. Each number is a person, a family, a whole world. Hearing the heartbreaking stories makes one think that we would never forget, but history repeats, we have forgotten before. The CSIS report “Ending the Cycle of Crisis and Complacency in U.S. Global Health Security” was published in November 2019. Its words should serve as a warning to us all:

When health crises strike — measles, Zika, Ebola, pandemic flu — and the American people grow alarmed, the U.S. government springs into action. But all too often, when the crisis fades and fear subsides, urgency morphs into complacency. Investments dry up, attention shifts, and a false sense of security takes hold.

We must never return to the way things were. Too much is at stake. The world must change its ways and act smarter. The next pandemic is not a theoretical threat. Covid-19 may pass, but another virus surely awaits and it might be even more dangerous. Let us learn from our mistakes and improve what worked this time. We can do better.

Image by cromaconceptovisual from Pixabay

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I love writing about what I love. Journalist. Always curious. Israeli born, London based. Father, Husband, and a dog person.

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