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Feb. 11, 2020, 11:43 a.m. EST

We must fight pandemics as if we were preparing for war

Our only advantage over coronavirus and other killer microbes is our intelligence

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By Julie Sunderland


Steve Parsons-WPA Pool/Getty Images
Dr Felicity Hartnell, a clinical research fellow at Oxford University, holds a vial of the ebola vaccine developed by her team.

SEATTLE, Wash. ( Project Syndicate) — 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.

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.

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: t he 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.

Unproductive fear-mongering

Nonetheless, the fear-mongering 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.

Specifically, we need a three-pronged approach.

First, we must invest in science and technology. Our current military capabilities are the result of trillions of dollars of investment in research and development. Yet we deploy only a fraction of those resources to the rapid development of vaccines, antibiotics, and diagnostics to fight dangerous pathogens.

Advances in biology allow us to understand a new pathogen’s genetic code and mutational capabilities. We can now manipulate the immune system to fight disease, and rapidly develop more effective therapeutics and diagnostics . New RNA vaccines , for example, can program our own cells to deliver proteins that alert the immune system to develop antibodies against a disease, essentially turning our bodies into “vaccine factories.”

Looking ahead, the mandates of research organizations like the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which are already funding programs to counter bioterrorism and other biological threats, should be broadened to support much more research into pandemic response.

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