In Vox.com, Ezra Klein writes about The most predictable disaster in the history of the human race: a new pandemic that Bill Gates think the likeliest disaster we face in the next twenty years. Excerpt:
Behind Gates's fear of pandemic disease is an algorithmic model of how disease moves through the modern world. He funded that model to help with his foundation's work eradicating polio. But then he used it to look into how a disease that acted like the Spanish flu of 1918 would work in today's world.
The results were shocking, even to Gates. "Within 60 days it's basically in all urban centers around the entire globe," he says. "That didn't happen with the Spanish flu."
The basic reason the disease could spread so fast is that human beings now move around so fast. Gates's modelers found that about 50 times more people cross borders today than did so in 1918. And any new disease will cross those borders with them — and will do it before we necessarily even know there is a new disease. Remember what Ron Klain said: "If you look at the H1N1 flu in 2009, it had spread around the world before we even knew it existed."
Gates's model showed that a Spanish flu–like disease unleashed on the modern world would kill more than 33 million people in 250 days.
"We've created, in terms of spread, the most dangerous environment that we've ever had in the history of mankind," Gates says.
Underdeveloped health systems threaten developed countries
The science fiction writer William Gibson has a good line: the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed. And nowhere is that truer than in health care.
According to the World Health Organization, the United States spends more than $8,000 per person, per year, on health care. Eritrea spends less than $20. Traditionally, Americans thinks of that as Eritrea's problem. But if a highly infectious, highly lethal new disease presents in Eritrea, and the world is slow to learn about it, then it will quickly become America's problem.
This is, of course, what happened with Ebola. If it had made its first appearance in the United States, it likely would have been caught, and contained, quickly. But as my colleague Julia Belluz wrote, the countries where the 2014 outbreak began "happen to be three of the poorest in the world, and it took them at least three months to even realize they were harboring an Ebola outbreak." By the time Ebola was recognized, it was already out of control — and so, for the first time, it made its way to American shores.
When I ask the CDC's Frieden what's needed to catch these diseases early, he doesn't hesitate. "The most effective way to protect people is basic public health infrastructure," he says. "That means laboratories for finding specimens, getting them tested, and discovering what's spreading. It means field epidemiologists. It means emergency operation centers. And you need to have that available day in and day out. If we've learned anything, it’s that you want an everyday public health system you can scale up for an emergency, not a system you only use in case of emergencies."
On a few unfortunate occasions my wife and I have had to spend time at Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world. The lines for passport checks and security would be a perfect ground zero for the rapid dissemination of a new disease.