Should We Brace Ourselves for a Deadly Epidemic?

It may happen sooner than you think.

May 17, 2019, Bruno Jacobson

For all of our scientific advances, we always seem to be playing a cat-and-mouse game. A bacteria or virus appears, and we develop antibiotics or antiviral drugs to deal with it. Sometimes, a new strain evolves, which is resistant to previous medicines, and we need to come up with new remedies. Some fear this can't go on forever. One worry is that our overprescribing of antibiotics will continue to lead to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, with possibly devastating consequences.

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The Threat of the next great global pandemic is real


Great global pandemics are nothing new. It's safe to say human beings have been through some pretty rough epidemics that impacted large parts of the globe.

According to MPHonline, the worst of them, "The Black Death," killed between 75 to 200 million people (over 30% of the human population at the time), during the 1300s. Though the number of deaths from worldwide pandemics has decreased ever since the Black Plague, we've still had a few devastating ones. In 1918, the Flu Pandemic, also known as the "Spanish Flu," killed an estimated 50 to 100 million people and infected over a 3rd of the world population. Between 1956 and 1958, the "Asian Flu" resulted in the death of 2 million people.

One of the pandemics we are perhaps most familiar with is HIV/AIDS, which has claimed the lives of more than 36 million people worldwide since 1981. Though far more manageable these days, to those with access to proper care, it has left a permanent mark in our history and serves as a reminder of what could happen when such a pandemic strikes again.

An article published by BBC reports that scientists believe it's only a matter of time until our seasonal flu, which kills up to 500,000 people every year worldwide, evolves into a strain that could be as deadly as the Spanish flu. The article not only suggests we would have almost no means to stop it but that we might also be quite poorly prepared for it.

The World Economic Forum agrees that pandemics are likely inevitable. However, it is a little more optimistic about our ability to deal with them. According to them, the economic damage that would come as a result of such pandemics can be controlled more quickly than their outbreak. 

Nevertheless, it still estimates that the potential economic losses from pandemics are "massive and similar in magnitude to the annual impact of climate change." In the coming decades, economists estimate that pandemics will cause annual average losses equivalent to 0.7% of global GDP.

Diseases of the Future- Source:Rferl
Infographic based on the article called "Forecasting life expectancy, years of life lost, and all-cause and cause-specific mortality for 250 causes of death: reference and alternative scenarios for 2016-40 for 195 countries and territories." - Source: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty


More funding for research to stop the next pandemic

The continuously evolving strains of bacteria only make this issue more severe. There's nothing we can do about antibiotic-resistant strains. It's a natural part of how the world works. But we can certainly do better to slow their onset, to monitor their development, and to fight them.

Some of this is coming from philanthropy. Bill Gates, for instance, has not recoiled from warning us of the dangers ahead. In 2016, he said, "I cross my fingers all the time that some epidemic like The Big Flu doesn't come along in the next 10 years."

He hasn't shied away from putting his money where his mouth is either. Last year, he announced the commitment of 25 million US dollars to fighting "superbugs." Together with the UK Government, he will contribute nearly 52 million US dollars to the Global Antimicrobial Resistance Innovation Fund to support the early-stage development of vaccines, antibiotics, and diagnostics in the fight against superbugs. 

A Boston University research accelerator, called "Combating Antibiotic Resistance Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator (CARB-X), is another example of the type of efforts going into this issue. Since 2016, it has already raised more than 500 million US dollars. 

But despite all the efforts, the threat continues to increase. And it's not just bacteria, either.

In Japan in 2009, a fungus called Candida Auris was identified from the ear discharge of a patient in Japan. Though it normally resides in a harmless form in mucous membranes and on the skin, a new drug-resistant form of the fungus has now spread across the globe. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionC. auris, which can cause serious health issues from disability to death, has already developed some serious drug-resistant types. Most strains of the fungus are resistant to at least one anti-fungal drug class, while more than 1/3rd are resistant to two. Some of them are event resistant to all three drugs currently available. 

C. Auris is only one of the several fungi, bacteria, or viruses that have already developed drug-resistant strains. So should we brace ourselves for a deadly pandemic? 

Maybe we can be a little more optimistic here. While it is highly probable that we will indeed see more of these diseases spreading, their full impact is still unknown. We are putting increasingly more funds into preventing their onset or combating their consequences. We must still contend, however, that the emergence of a deadly pandemic with devastating consequences worldwide remains a probability, however. And this wild card type of event is something we must continue to prepare for in order to avoid the most catastrophic of scenarios.



This article is inspired by 2 phenomena studied by Futures Platform's foresight team.

The first phenomenon called "Antibiotic Resistance" lays out the case for preemptive use of antibiotics in animal feed and unnecessary human consumption are continuously creating bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics.

At the time of writing this phenomenon is marked as "Strengthening", meaning that it has a high probability to grow stronger and should be monitored closely. 

Antibiotic Resistance - Futures Platform - Future Trends
Antibiotic Resistance is a growing concern and needs to be monitored closely - Video Credits: ABC Science

The other related phenomenon is called "Blanket Medicine for Viruses". It explores the possibility of medication that can cure and prevent most known viral diseases, yet is still safe for human health. New research aims to invent a better treatment and prevention of viral infections in the next decades.

The Futures Platform's team identifies the phenomenon as a Wild Card. Wild Card phenomena have the potential to affect the future significantly, but there is a low probability that they are going to happen at the moment. 

In short, these phenomena need to be monitored continuously over time in case they become a reality in the future.  

Blanket Medicine - Futures Platform - Future Trends
New research about viral infections opens the door for new medication. Video Credits: Killing Sickness Youtube channel 

To learn more about these 2 phenomena as well as how they will affect our future, sign up for the free trial. You will get access to more than 700 trends and phenomena across various fields. All content is studied and validated by a team of foresight experts.


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