One of the myths of the global coronavirus pandemic is that no one could have seen it coming, that Covid-19 was an unanticipated event that emerged without warning or precedent. While the pandemic was not foreseen by governments and global leaders, it was not unanticipated by science.
Virologists, epidemiologists and public health officials have long been forecasting a global emergency such as the one that is currently ongoing.
Researchers have shown that some species of bat act as a natural reservoir for coronavirus. It’s well-established that civets played the role of intermediate host for SARS by bridging the gap between bats and humans, and that camels played the same role in the emergence of MERS. Over the years, WIRED has reported on the work of many of these scientists in an attempt to amplify the urgency of their message. As the epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, who led the WHO programme that eradicated smallpox told me in 2014 when discussing the chances of a more virulent pathogen emerging following the SARS pandemic, “we’re in a race against time”.
A narrative that this was a “black swan” event – a happening beyond normal expectations that could not be predicted with standard forecasting tools – is a necessary one for elected officials. Yet, in 2016, a report following Exercise Cygnus – a simulation of a tier one flu outbreak involving 950 local and national health officials concluded, “The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic that will have a nationwide impact across all sectors,” and drew particular attention to the social care sector.
The UK government is not alone in anticipating but not implementing public health planning. Across the world, scientists specialising in research into highly infectious diseases with the potential to cross from animals to human beings had struggled to be heard and, in some cases, access funding.
The experts should be silenced no longer. Despite the global response to developing a vaccine, which has been conducted at unprecedented speed – according to the WHO, there are 200 candidates at various stages across the world – we have been playing catch-up. Chinese scientists shared a draft genome of the virus in January, but a vaccine is unlikely before 2021.
Other global threats remain familiar and well-known, and not only by scientists. Antibiotic resistance is the next big health challenge that we must confront. The UN estimates that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) could cause ten million deaths per year by 2050 – at the time of writing, Covid-19 has killed 571k – while the World Bank estimates that AMR could cost the global economy $1.2 trillion annually.
For scientists to produce a viable Covid-19 vaccine, global co-ordination and intergovernmental co-operation will be required. We need the same urgency from leaders to get ahead of other systemic menaces not only to mankind, but to Earth itself. To borrow the Downing Street daily briefing refrain, if we’re truly to “follow the science”, we must apply the same mantra to other existential threats with dynamic, cross-border initiatives. It’s hard for politicians whose tenure in cabinet, let alone in government, might be limited, but we must demand urgency for our leaders to seize the initiative and make the case for a longer-term strategy to combat future threats.
Instead of managing crises, we must prepare for them by integrating knowledge and skills from across the world. Who knows – it might actually be helpful to listen to the experts.
Greg Williams is WIRED’s editor-in-chief. He tweets from @GregWilliams718
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