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What AIDS Taught Us About Fighting Pandemics

After HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS, and other recent epidemics, periods of heightened awareness and important scientific research have given way to complacency and reduced funding. If the response to COVID-19 follows a similar path, we will have only ourselves to blame when – not if – an even more lethal biological threat emerges.

NEW YORK – Thirty-five years ago, in the midst of the new and still somewhat unknown AIDS epidemic, I warned in testimony to the US Congress that we were facing another deadly episode in the long battle between humankind and microbes. If asked to testify again I would say the same thing today.

Just as it is impossible for us to control tsunamis, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions, our ability to subdue contagious outbreaks is more limited than we like to admit. Despite what we often tell ourselves, we cannot always impose our will upon the natural world.

When it comes to other forms of natural disaster, the private and public sectors have agreed on policies to mitigate the risk. Billions of dollars have been committed to seawalls and other infrastructure to manage the threats posed by tsunamis and hurricanes, and we have long had regulations requiring that high-rise buildings be constructed to withstand tremors.

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