Sars vials misplaced, dengue fever samples lost in the post—the chilling lack of bio-security at research labsby Peter Frankopan / June 9, 2020 / Leave a comment
At the end of last year, I was asked to write in Prospect about the biggest global challenges in the coming decade. There was no question in my mind about what I would write about: pandemics and “the medical response to global pandemic—which is pitiful,” I said in an email to the editor. “And we are going to find that out soon (I fear).” My article, published in early December, said that “we live in the age of the pandemic,” and warned that the lack of international co-ordination and preparation could make a dangerous outbreak even worse.
I couldn’t have known how soon and how devastatingly this warning would be borne out. But as a historian, I had learned that pandemics were something to worry about. I had been thinking about the subject for a while, and talked about it at length when I was asked into several government ministries to discuss post-Brexit Britain in December and early January.
The past has often shown how a deadly disease can take hold after a pathogen leaps between species, but multiple factors need to lock into place for it to spread effectively, and reach pandemic proportions. Globalisation ramps up the risks. In particular, the same travel and transportation that allows for more exchange, movement and transmission of goods and people than ever before in history, also provides more vectors than ever for the spread of infections. These could expose the fragility of interlocking economies with potentially devastating effects. The way that this coronavirus has done just that is astonishing: almost half of the world’s labour force have either lost their jobs, or else seen much or all of their income vanish.
There is, however, a worse nightmare to consider than natural pestilence being amplified by globalisation. Many countries around the world conduct research into emerging infectious diseases and into potentially dangerous biological threats. What would happen if something went badly wrong in one of their laboratories?
“Yes I have,” said President Trump at the end of April, when asked if he had seen evidence that the Covid-19 virus ravaging the world…