OP-ED: More pandemics are coming; will we heed the warning signs?

Ronn Pineo
The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
A sign along the sidewalk in an area lined with bars and restaurants in the Wicker Park neighborhood encourages people to stay home on November 11, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson/Getty Images/TNS)

We should have seen it coming. There had been too many near misses for devastating human pandemics: the Ebola virus, beginning in 1976; the “bird” flu H5N1, first appearing in 1997; SARS in 2003; Zika, beginning in 2007; MERS, starting in 2012. There were others.

We had ample warnings before COVID-19.

And yet it seemed to take us by surprise. We were not ready. We had not learned the lessons of prior pandemics. We had failed to follow the advice of those who work most closely on these issues. Indeed, the Trump administration actually cut off funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pandemic early warning system, known as “PREDICT,” just months before the first case of COVID-19.

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Several factors are making pandemics like the one we’re in more likely in the future. Climate change is spreading the range for vectors that convey disease. As the atmosphere heats up, new homes have appeared for the aëdes mosquitoes that spread Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, and for anopheles mosquitoes, the vector for malaria.

Modern commercial animal compounds pack together nearly identical species that can easily infect one another. Chickens, which at the turn of the last century were more of special treat, are now a main source of protein in the human diet; chickens today outnumber humans by more than three to one. Hogs and cattle live their brief lives crammed together end to end — eating, defecating, cheek to jowl. Injected with antibiotics to promote quick fattening, the feed lots offer up a rich microbial soup. Trouble is being cooked up there.

Since 1950 the world population has tripled. At 7.8 billion people and counting, we are pushing our numbers all over the globe, just at a time when some regions are becoming too dry and hot for people to safely live there. As humans claim more and more territory, we have moved into animal habitats heretofore left alone. Zoonoses, animal diseases, are increasingly spilling over from wild creatures into humans. And because there are so many more humans now, maintaining a chain of infections is becoming more likely. Microbes mutate. As they pass into humans, if one stray mutation can readily reproduce, more of it will follow.

Once that happens anywhere, it happens everywhere. Traveling halfway around the world, once the stuff of wild flights of imagination, now takes 16 hours flying time. People infected with a novel zoonosis that morning can easily be spreading the same microbe anywhere else in the world that very evening. We are all only as safe as the least protected person.

The wealthy nations and developing societies have different experiences. It is mainly about financial resources. Wealthy nations have better fed populations. Wealthy nations have superior sanitation and potable water infrastructure. Wealthy nations have stronger vaccination programs.

During the current crisis wealthy nations could better afford pandemic relief programs. The wealthier nations led the way in vaccine development, and they have begun to use the vaccines for their own populations first.

So, this pandemic is ending in parts of the wealthier nations, although not yet in much of the less developed world.

But then the next one won’t be long in getting here. We should see it coming.

— Ronn Pineo is a professor of History at Towson University, where he teaches a course in “Disease and History.” He is the guest editor for a forthcoming two-part series on pandemics for The Journal of Developing Societies.