(Wired) We Can Protect the Economy From Pandemics. Why Didn’t We?

“It’s really a 100-year thing,” Nathan Wolfe said. It was 2006, and Wolfe, then a 36-year-old virologist with an unruly nest of curly hair, was sitting across a table from me at a bustling restaurant in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. An epidemiology professor at UCLA, he had been living in West Africa for six years, establishing a research center to identify and study viruses as they crossed over from wild animals into humans.

That night Wolfe told me he was forming a network of research outposts around the globe, in hot spots where potentially devastating viruses were poised to make the jump: Cameroon, where HIV likely passed from chimpanzees into local hunters; the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had seen human outbreaks of monkeypox; Malaysia, home to a 1998 emergence of the Nipah virus; and China, where SARS-CoV had crossed over, likely from bats, in 2002. Wolfe’s hope was that by understanding what he called the “viral chatter” of such places, it would be possible not only to react more quickly to outbreaks but to forecast their arrival and stop them before they spread. The “100-year thing” he was thinking about was a global pandemic, and how history would judge humanity’s efforts to prepare for it. His biggest fear, he said, was a virus unknown to human immune defenses starting a human-to-human transmission chain that would encircle the globe.

As we knocked back Cameroonian beers and talked between sets of a local band, he admitted his project could fail. “It could be that we look at this and it’s stochastic—you can’t predict it,” he said. “Or, it could be that we are on the edge of a paradigm shift.” The ultimate question, Wolfe added, was “Will people look back and say you did a good job responding to epidemics, but you didn’t do anything to prevent them?” The 100-year notion so captivated me that I used it as the last line of a story I wrote in 2007, in this magazine.

Thirteen years later, as the SARS-CoV-2 virus burned across the globe this March, it appeared that the 100-year judgment had arrived. We’d failed both at preventing the exact danger Wolfe had warned us about and at responding when it emerged. He wasn’t the only pandemic Cassandra, of course. Not even close. Scientists, journalists, and public health experts had sounded the alarm for decades, filling journals, government reports, and popular books with their pleas. There were conferences, commissions, hearings, exercises, consortiums. Every few years another near-miss epidemic emerged that cried out for long-term preparation….

Read it all.


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