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Scientists Worry About The Next Pandemic

Kin Cheung
Passengers wear masks to prevent an outbreak of a new coronavirus in a subway station, in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.

There are two to five new diseases a year that pass from insects and animals to humans, and researchers worry any one of them could become the next pandemic. In a conference call sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, a few of the nation's top scientists expressed concern.

The March 13 call, recorded here, featured:

  • Larry Brilliant, chair, Ending Pandemics; CEO Pandefense and former CDC Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee
  • Tara O'Toole, executive vice president, In-Q-Tel; former undersecretary of Science and Technology, U.S. Department of Homeland Security
  • Mark Smolinski, president, Ending Pandemics; former director, Predict and Prevent Initiative, Google.org

Brilliant, an epidemiologist who helped create the movie Contagion says, "We are in the age of pandemics and a pattern has emerged where 50 or more viruses of animals have jumped species from animals to humans."

He says our job is to make sure Contagion remains fiction.


The reason we are in the age of pandemics, according to O'Toole, is because humans have intruded into new ecosystems and are coming into contact with new animal diseases. She says it's also the result of different trade and travel patterns, which are not going to change.

Her strategic epidemic response plan includes:

  • Detecting and diagnosing the pathogen rapidly
  • Protecting the well with a vaccine in real time
  • Taking care of the sick by rapidly screening new medicines
  • Getting better at collecting, analyzing and disseminating information

She says public health needs to move at the speed of business. "For reasons that are partly attributable to lack of resources but are somewhat mysterious, public health has not absorbed technology at the rate of the commercial sector. We need to change that."
O'Toole calls for a rapid diagnostic test that can be mailed to everybody and performed like pregnancy tests, where you could do them at home to "figure out if you are infected with virus 'X' or not."

A rapid diagnostic blood test for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies might be available in May. ABC reports commercial labs are scrambling to develop and distribute such a test that could allow people to go back to work if they can show they have been exposed to the virus.