The big practical challenge involves developing responses at national and international level so that we can co-ordinate and act in the face of a global pandemicby Peter Frankopan / December 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
We live in an interconnected world: more people live in cities than at any time in human history, and they live closer to each other than ever before. As this new decade starts, travel between cities is quicker and cheaper than ever: more than half the world’s population live less than an hour from a major city; flight networks mean that almost every city in Africa, Asia and Europe is less than 18 hours apart—including with flight transfers.
This produces all sorts of wonders—from fashions to food, from Instagram experiences to cheaper prices. But exchange is not just about commerce or even the spread of ideas. Contact brings unforeseen and unexpected consequences, too. Disease is perhaps the most important—and is potentially catastrophic.
The “kill rates” of infectious diseases can be devastating, but sometimes this encourages us to look away. Although outbreaks of Ebola have been regular, the fact that the virus kills its hosts so quickly means that its spread can be prevented through exclusion zones and isolating populations that have or might have been exposed.
Plague can wreak more carnage, as it can incubate and spread more effectively: in the 1340s a change in climatic conditions contributed to the spread of plague, likely originating in Central Asia, spreading across the Middle East and Europe, where it killed perhaps as much as half the population. Highly contagious, the plague bacteria yersinia pestis is not only spread by fleas on rats (as we were taught at school) but can be transmitted by a variety of hosts—and can also spread in pneumonic form via respiratory droplets released through coughing. Like Ebola, plague still strikes regularly—there have been several outbreaks in China in 2019—but is containable as long as quarantine cordons are imposed quickly.
The real concern comes from pathogens that spread before action can be taken. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately one billion people contract seasonal influenza each year, resulting in between 290,000-650,000 deaths. That is bad enough. But far bigger dangers lurk when new strains appear. Particularly hazardous are strains that jump the species barrier—typically from birds or swine, creatures that are mixing vessels for influenza surface proteins to which humans are immunologically naive.
There have been several close shaves in recent years of avian…