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The Risk of Another Global Pandemic

The Risk of Another Global Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 resulted in significant costs for public health and society globally. As of August 2023, there have been over 770 million reported cases and 6.9 million deaths worldwide, with the World Health Organization (WHO) estimating that the actual mortality rate may be even higher. As well as the direct impact on health, there have been numerous indirect effects, including virtual education, remote work, and an impact on mental health. [members_only]

The full extent and impact of the pandemic are still being analyzed, and the negative effects will likely continue to be felt for many years.

In addition to the health and societal impacts, COVID-19 has also had a significant economic impact, with unprecedented declines in gross domestic product (GDP) across countries in 2020. The economic losses globally are anticipated to reach $13.8 trillion by 2024. However, the economic problem would likely have been even worse without the investments in pandemic preparedness. Although these efforts laid the foundation for the development of COVID-19 vaccines, the WHO found that overall, investments in preparedness before the pandemic were inadequate, recommending the need to reassess and improve global readiness for future pandemics.

The success of the preparedness investments’ is demonstrated by comparing the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19 of 2020. Despite the impacts of the latter, the pandemic of 1918-19 infected an estimated 500 million people, approximately 33% of the world’s population, and resulted in about 50 million deaths.

According to a recent study and report by the scientific journal Nature, the likelihood of experiencing another pandemic has increased over the past 100 years, with smaller outbreaks and larger pandemics of emerging infectious diseases becoming more frequent. The Study suggests that there is a 17% chance of another pandemic occurring in one’s lifetime, which may even rise to 44% in the next few decades. This means that every year, there is a probability of over 2% of a new pandemic.

However, the report says, it is challenging to predict which pathogen will cause the next pandemic. Most diseases with pandemic potential initially spread from animals to humans, these are known as ‘zoonotic spillover’. These diseases can become dangerous if they evolve the ability to be transmitted from human to human.

In the 20th century, zoonotic spillover is believed to have triggered most viral pandemics. Factors such as urbanization, habitat destruction, and climate change have increased the likelihood of zoonotic spillover, as humans and animals come into closer contact, giving pathogens more opportunities to infect humans.

Climate change has also caused animals to migrate to new territories, leading to new species interactions and further increasing the risk of zoonotic spillover. In certain circumstances, a new pathogen can grow from a disease outbreak to a pandemic. The characteristics of a pathogen, such as transmissibility, case fatality rate, replication rate, and mutability, can influence its chances of becoming a widespread pandemic.

For example, pathogens with a higher case fatality rate and lower transmissibility, like Ebola, are more likely to have a limited geographic impact. On the other hand, SARS-CoV-2, with its moderate case fatality rate and high transmissibility, has led to an exponential growth in infections due to airborne transmission and asymptomatic spread. Factors such as globalization and the increase in travel can also accelerate the spread of high-risk pathogens between countries. Furthermore, RNA viruses, which have a high mutation rate, pose a greater risk because random mutations can lead to adaptations that benefit the virus.

Although other types of pathogens should not be disregarded, according to Nature evidence suggests that the next pandemic will most likely be caused by a respiratory RNA virus, such as a coronavirus or influenza. While it is impossible to predict the exact type and severity of the next pandemic, taking proactive measures now based on reasonable assumptions can lead to a more effective response in the future.

As seen with COVID-19, non-pharmaceutical interventions and stockpiled medical countermeasures may be crucial in controlling a disease outbreak, and preparations for their deployment need to be in place. By observing past pandemics and their responses, we can take proactive measures that may increase our chances of preventing or mitigating the next pandemic, which is an ongoing and potentially growing threat.

The impact of COVID-19 will be remembered for years to come, and while its memory may fade, the possibility of another pandemic remains. The swift global response to COVID-19 saw unprecedented cooperation and resource mobilization, the implementation of new systems, and the establishment of partnerships. To ensure readiness for future pandemics and other health emergencies we must apply lessons learned from COVID-19 and prepare for the future.

By reducing the delay between response and pandemic declaration, the number of cases and deaths can be lowered earlier on, with vaccination being a key intervention.

The Nature report concludes by saying, that despite the high costs of responding to public health emergencies, funding for preparedness has remained stagnant or decreased in higher-income countries. Thus, it is necessary to bolster dedicated financing and establish cross-border and cross-sector agreements to promote health equity in pandemic responses. Cooperation within the global community is essential in protecting against a global threat like a pandemic, with all types of organizations, including the private sector, playing a role. The risk of another pandemic is ever-present, but by working together today, countless lives can be saved tomorrow.

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