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Pandemic Panics

The global overreaction to the coronavirus outbreak has once again exposed a lack of preparedness to use the knowledge and tools already at our disposal. Until we provide the same funding and respect to public health and science agencies that we extend to the military, the costs of the war with pathogens will remain unnecessarily high.

SEATTLE – Every few years, humanity succumbs to mass hysteria at the prospect of a global pandemic. In this century alone, SARS, H1N1, Ebola, MERS, Zika, and now the coronavirus have all generated reactions that, in retrospect, seem disproportionate to the actual impact of the disease. The 2002-03 SARS outbreak in China (also a coronavirus, likely transmitted from bat to human) infected 8,000 people and caused fewer than 800 deaths. Nonetheless, it resulted in an estimated $40 billion in lost economic activity, owing to closed borders, travel stoppages, business disruptions, and emergency health-care costs.

Such reactions are understandable. The prospect of an infectious disease killing our children triggers ancient survival instincts. And modern medicine and health systems have created the illusion that we have complete biological control over our collective fate, even though the interconnectedness of the modern world has actually accelerated the rate at which new pathogens emerge and spread. And there are good reasons to fear new infectious diseases: the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) estimates that a highly contagious, lethal, airborne pathogen similar to the 1918 Spanish flu could kill nearly 33 million people worldwide in just six months.

Nonetheless, the fearmongering and draconian responses to each outbreak are unproductive. We are a biological species living among other organisms that sometimes pose a danger to us, and that have evolutionary advantages over us of sheer numbers and rapid mutational rates. Our most powerful weapon against that threat is our intelligence. Owing to modern science and technology, and our capacity for collective action, we already have the tools to prevent, manage, and contain global pandemics. Rather than thrashing around every time a new pathogen surprises us, we should simply deploy the same resources, organization, and ingenuity that we apply to building and managing our military assets.