Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has been called “Dr. Doom.” The nationally-known infectious disease expert based in Minnesota has been predicting a global pandemic for decades, including in his 2017 book “Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs.”
And he says the current coronavirus pandemic isn’t even the big one, compared to a global flu pandemic that could be even more virulent.
As the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Osterholm, 67, has been a strong voice during the pandemic, appearing in every major national news outlet to advocate for better public health preparedness. The former Minnesota state epidemiologist was named to President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board . He’s also a grandfather of five children between the ages of three and 10, and has been candid about how hard it was to go months without seeing them this year.
Next Avenue: You’re a boomer. You haven’t slowed down at all. You’re probably working more than ever because of the demand right now. So what does aging mean to you?
Michael Osterholm: I’ve always ascribed to the belief that youth is not a time of life, it’s a state of mind. And I’ve tried my life to be young — and not physically young, I understand I can’t have any impact on that — but the joy of life, the fun of life, the humor of life, the kindness of life. And I think that this pandemic has been a challenge in that regard.
I do a podcast weekly where I really try to emphasize the issue of kindness and empathy and understanding and helping people who are lonely. At the same time, I’ve never before in my career received the hateful threatening communications I have from people who don’t know me, but had just believed that I’m part of the deep state or somehow harming them because of what I do about the pandemic.
In some ways, do you feel like you’ve been preparing your whole life for this, for this moment? You knew it was coming.
The irony of all this is that this is not the big one.
I’ve heard you say that, and that’s probably horrifying to people. This is bad enough.
When you think about the impact that a 1918-like influenza pandemic could have, where the number of deaths are greatly increased in those 18 to 30 years of age, and that the number of deaths would be substantially higher than they even are with this one. And then you think about the fact that today for the eight billion people on the earth that we’re trying to feed, there are 23 billion chickens alive right now on the earth. Roughly one third of all birds on the earth are chickens and where that protein production is at also happens to coincide where a lot of the swine production is to also feed that population.
There are over 390 million pigs on the face of the earth right now. Well, when you put those birds and those pigs together, and in general proximity, the avian strains of influenza in those chickens are the ones that will one day become one of them, an influenza pandemic virus, meaning a human transmitted virus that will kill lots of people. Pigs are the mixing vessel for both bird viruses and human viruses.
More from Dr. Osterholm: Americans will be living with the coronavirus for decades
1918 pandemics are not done. They’re going to happen again and again. And so if we think this one was bad — it is bad, when you look at all the deaths and the cases, it’s horrible — but it’s not what it’s going to be, if we had a severe influenza pandemic, which I’m unfortunately confident we will.
And that’s where aging comes in. Because I’ve never had more motivation or more reason to want to understand what I and my other colleagues of my age are leaving our kids and grandkids.