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Disastrous pandemics capable of killing many millions have devastated humanity throughout civilization, most famously the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, and recently AIDS. Between 1940 and 2004, more than 300 infectious diseases emerged.  

A pandemic can cripple nations and entire regions. The US government estimates that as much as 40 percent of the nation’s workforce could be affected at the height of a pandemic. While advances in medicine and sanitation have largely reduced these threats, health experts acknowledge there is no way to determine whether a killer of biblical proportions will emerge.  

Threats Are Everywhere  

Contributing factors are causing a heightened risk of pandemics:  

Evolution of “superbugs” can cause well- controlled diseases to re-emerge in untreatable and deadly forms. Even common bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, which are widely overused.[i] See our Wild Card on Superbugs.    

Although swift response by health authorities has prevented localized epidemics of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome), the disease has not been eradicated. It could reappear at any time. To date, smallpox is the only human infection disease to have been completely eradicated, and even that still exists in at least two highly secure laboratories.  

As climate change melts ice and permafrost, potentially lethal diseases can re-emerge as viruses and bacteria can survive tens of thousands or even millions of years in such conditions. There already have been isolated cases of infection by anthrax in Siberia, but the real fear is that re-emerging pathogens might cause a global pandemic. [ii]  

Households are breeding grounds.  Scientists have found that MRSA —methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus—best known for causing catastrophic hospital infections, originated in homes in northern Manhattan. Doctors hope this knowledge will lead to new ways of controlling major outbreaks.  

Speed of transmission is increasing. With millions traveling on airplanes, an aggressive virus (with an incubation period typically of a few days) could be on every continent within 36 hours. A combined avian flu virus and human flu virus could create a pandemic as lethal as the Spanish Flu of 1918. 

Stored viruses could be accidentally released, and terrorists could unleash deadly viruses as weapons. In 2004, 3,700 test kits of the Asian Flu virus were spread around the world from a US lab. Spores of weaponized anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility in the Soviet Union. An unknown virus that catches the global health community off-guard may spread faster than a vaccine can be created. Economics may hinder vaccination in impoverished countries. [iii]            

 
The urgency of the problem is creating solutions.  


Existing antibiotics can become more potent. Preliminary results show that modifying existing antibiotics, such as vancomycin, can make them up to 25,000 times more potent. [iv] US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is taking steps to understand rare diseases, curb their transmission, diagnosis quickly, and treat effectively. [v]  

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a leading military think tank, is working on a system to modify the genome so antibodies are produced to quell an outbreak. A spokesman for DARPA said, “We’re going to take the genetic code and put it in a format where you can go to your drugstore and get a shot in the arm [for any disease.]” [vi]  

 

Most Likely Forecast  

TechCast Experts think this is a major danger and the results would be devastating. Millions are dying now and several major diseases are active and pose serious threats:  

AIDS Will Kill Millions The AIDS virus alone is expected to kill almost 150 million by 2025.

Ebola Outbreak Over 4,500 people have died of the disease in central Africa, and the World Health Organization warns that there could be over 6 million infections by 2015.    

Tuberculosis  The World Health Organization estimates about 310,000 cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis worldwide in 2011.

Spanish Flu The Spanish Flu virus killed approximately 50 million people in 1918–1919. (Emerging Infectious Diseases)

Pneumonia WHO warns that pneumonia will again become a feared killer if urgent action is not taken to preserve the power of current antibiotics.  

Our experts estimate a 41 percent probability a pandemic devastates a major region, destabilizing global society. They rate the impact -5 on our -10 to +10 scale, indicating severe losses.      

Impacts and Implications  
The major impact  is that  a  global breakdown is possible. Aside from incalculable deaths, economies could come to a halt, as seen in the 2002 SARS outbreak in Southeast Asia, which required a US$1.5-billion rescue. Transportation, power, and most aspects of daily life could also be devastated by a lack of healthy workers.  

Many experts consider a global pandemic to be among the biggest health threats, if not the biggest. Evidence suggests global pandemic influenzas are a regular occurrence, and one is likely to cause millions of deaths even with some antiviral medications available.

However, a global outbreak of disease would be likely to bring a major influx of money into medical research, advancing our understanding not only of the specific illness but of the underlying mechanisms of pandemic. The US Food and Drug Administration has only approved two new classes of antibiotics since 1998. Some researchers thus are setting their sights on what they see as a more readily attainable goal: to combine existing drugs into more effective therapies. Some of these funds could be expected to go to the less developed nations, improving healthcare in regions where disease spreads most easily.    
 

[i] US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Jun 17, 2016

[ii] BBC, May 4, 2017

[iii] Stefanakis, R., et al. PLoS “Neglected Tropical Diseases,” 6(10)

[iv] The Guardian, Oct 23, 2017

[v] UpToDate, Jun 9, 2017

[vi] Fusion, Mar 18, 2015

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