Pandemic: “we know it’s coming, and there’s no stopping it”

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Serious epidemics are on the rise the world over, and a hundred years on from the 1918 flu pandemic, experts are no longer in any doubt about the emergence of a new pandemic. But are we really prepared?

At the world economic forum, meeting as usual in Davos in Switzerland, the issue of potential pandemics is taken very seriously. According to Elhadj As Sy, the secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), “pandemics are becoming veritable threats to humanity”. Sylvie Briand, a World Health Organisation (WHO) specialist on infectious risk explains that “we know it’s going to happen, but we have no way of preventing it.”

This year, it will have been 100 years since the Spanish flu, or the 1918 flu pandemic, struck the world -an event which remains to date the worst pandemic in history. In the space of only two years, it caused over 50 million deaths worldwide. “India lost 5% of its population in 1918. It is the only period in history in which this country’s population declined”, comments Richard Hatchett, director general of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI).

Anxiety is growing, especially as controlling the flu virus is practically a mission impossible, at least in terms of preventing it from spreading. “The flu is a respiratory virus that is easily transmitted between people and it can be contagious even before the appearance of symptoms, so it is not easy to control”, explains Sylvie Briand. Worse again, the virus can now “marry” with other viruses, notably bird flu or swine flu. These viral cocktails cold be extremely dangerous for humans.

Numerous recent epidemics have experts increasingly worried. “In the past three years, we have had an Ebola epidemic in Western Africa, the Zika virus in South America, and more recently an outbreak of plague in Madagascar”, says Elhadj As Sy. Another factor that facilitates the spread of viruses is the global tendency for humans to travel extensively. “Humanity is more fragile in the face of epidemics because we are now more connected and move around faster than ever. When we travel, viruses travel with us”, adds Sylvie Briand.

The global economic costs are immense. In total, the global cost of preparing for a pandemic is estimated at 3.4 billion dollars per year, and the annual losses that could be caused by a pandemic could reach 570 billion dollars, as announced by Bill Gates at the beginning of 2017.

But another economic concern relates to the production of a vaccine to curb the spread of the virus, estimated at between 100 and 200 million dollars. However, pharmaceutical laboratories don’t seem to be in a hurry to start research. “There is no commercial market for these products, until an epidemic takes off in which suddenly everyone will want a vaccine that doesn’t exist” concludes Richard Hatchett, with understandable pessimism.