COVID-19 wasn’t the world’s first global pandemic and it won’t be the last. A study by the National Academy of Sciences put the probability of a pandemic with similar impact to COVID-19 at 2% in any given year. And that’s based on historical data. The same study estimates that the chance of novel disease outbreaks will grow by 3X in the next few decades. So what if a new pandemic happened this year?
The study’s authors did the math and concluded that it’s highly likely a similar pandemic will happen in the next 59 years. They also note that the probability is the same in any one of those 59 years. So what if it happened this year?
One analyst we follow – Zeynep Tufekci – recently wrote “[the world] is facing the possibility of a pandemic of a far more deadly pathogen [than COVID-19.]” She was talking about avian influenza – the disease behind the recent huge increase in the price of eggs. And she’s not alone in warning of the threat.
For birds, avian flu is already a worldwide disaster. It’s been found in 47 US states, as well as 37 European countries, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. Almost 60 million domestic poultry and more than 100 million in the western hemisphere have died or been culled because of the flu.
Fortunately the particular strain of flu we’re talking about – H5N1 – doesn’t infect mammals very frequently. But that appears to be changing. Last October more than 50,000 mink were destroyed when H5N1 was found at a mink farm in northern Spain. Seals, sea lions, bears, foxes, skunks and humans have all been found with the virus.
And among humans, it’s pretty deadly. Of the known cases, 56% of H5N1 infections have resulted in death. Of course, the mortality rate can be much lower and still create great havoc, as COVID-19 showed us.
Because of the increasing numbers of interactions between humans, animals and diseases, the risk of diseases such as H5N1 mutating into something that’s highly transmissible among people goes up.
The mink incident is especially troubling. As Tufecki writes: “When the coronavirus infected Danish mink farms in 2020 and the minks generated new variants that then infected humans…the outbreaks were uncontrollable. If different strains of flu have infected the same person simultaneously, the strains can swap gene segments and give rise to new, more transmissible ones. If a mink farmworker with the flu also gets infected by H5N1, that may be all it takes to ignite a pandemic.” Others agree: “This outbreak signals the very real potential for the emergence of mammal-to-mammal transmission,” according to Michelle Wille, a University of Sydney researcher. Adds Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist, “This is an infection that has epidemic and pandemic potential. I don’t know if people recognize how big a deal this is.”
H5N1 is just one of many pathogens that could pose a serious problem. Nipah virus, Zika, Mers, swine flu, yellow fever, Marburg virus and Ebola are just a few of the diseases that scientists have identified as capable of evolving and spreading around the world.
Given the probabilities and the damage such diseases can cause, are we ready? A lot of people don’t think so. As the Atlantic wrote just six months ago: “.. many public-health experts, historians, and legal scholars worry that the U.S. is lapsing into neglect, that the temporary wave of investments isn’t being channeled into the right areas, and that COVID-19 might actually leave the U.S. weaker against whatever emerges next.” The article goes on to describe various criticisms of the investments that the US is making in disease monitoring and prevention.
Socially, we also seem to be unprepared for the next pandemic. More than 2 years after the first vaccines were available, less than 70% of the US is fully vaccinated. Less than half of Americans wear masks even occasionally while in public, including me, by the way. And opposition to both vaccination and mask wearing mandates is as high as 30% in some of the polls we’ve seen. It’s probably actually higher than that.
As a public safety or emergency management professional, your job is to prepare for events that can harm the public. The point of this article is just to remind you that one of those events – a massive disease outbreak – will be a constant and potentially imminent threat for many, many years to come.
One step in preparing is having a mass emergency notification system. If your community doesn’t have one or isn’t happy with the one it has, it’s time to check out Hyper-Reach. You can book an online demo here.Request a Demo