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This epidemiologist predicted the coronavirus pandemic 14 years ago

Lawrence "Larry" Brilliant, an American epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox, warned about the inevitability of a global pandemic in a now-famous 2006 TED Talk.

Lawrence Brilliant


Paul Zimmerman
/ Getty
  • Lawrence "Larry" Brilliant is an American epidemiologist who's worked for the United Nations, Google and the World Health Organization.
  • In addition to warning the public about the threat of pandemics in 2006, Brilliant also served as a consultant for the 2011 film "Contagion".
  • Brilliant says he's "firmly confident" that the steps the U.S. is currently taking will help to flatten the curve, and provide scientists with more time to develop a vaccine or prophylactic.


If there's one person who wasn't caught off-guard by the coronavirus pandemic, it's likely Larry Brilliant, the American epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox.

Brilliant has spent years warning about the threat of pandemics — and our unpreparedness for them — in his positions with the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the Skoll Global Threats Fund, Google, and other organizations.

In 2006, Brilliant gave a TED Talk titled "Help Me Stop Pandemics," in which explained how the epidemiology community was predicting that a devastating pandemic was likely to occur over the next couple generations. This pandemic would have "almost unthinkable" consequences, including millions of deaths and a global depression.

Brilliant also took his warning to popular culture. He served as a consultant for the 2011 film "Contagion", a thriller about a virus that tears across the globe, killing millions and sparking public panic and disorder. Like the new coronavirus, the virus in the movie originated in bats.

In 2017, Brilliant spoke to Big Think about the threat of zoonotic viruses, which are those that transfer from animals to humans.

"It's not a question of if we will have a pandemic, it's a question of when," Brilliant said. "The odds that something like that happens increases to the extent that we are not prepared that we do not increase our ability to find every case as soon as it jumps from an animal to a human, that we are not able to respond quickly by whatever means we have at the time."

The next pandemic is inevitable. Are we prepared? | Larry Brilliant

As of March 23, the novel coronavirus has killed about 15,000 and infected 370,000 people worldwide. In some countries, the virus continues to spread at an alarming rate. One reason is that governments weren't prepared to execute the most important virus-containment strategies that Brilliant outlined in his 2006 TED Talk: early detection and early response.

"It's really hard to get people to listen," Brilliant told Wired. "I mean, Trump pushed out the admiral on the National Security Council, who was the only person at that level who's responsible for pandemic defense. With him went his entire downline of employees and staff and relationships. And then Trump removed the [early warning] funding for countries around the world."

Brilliant offered South Korea as an example of a relatively effective government response to the pandemic.

"If you take a look at what South Korea's doing, I think it comes as close to radical transparency as we've seen before, where the South Korean government is sending out text messages to every individual in the country saying: There is a corona case near you. Here's what you can do. Please tell us how you're doing," Brilliant said in a broadcast from the Council on Foreign Relations. "Publishing the daily counts, publishing the mistakes that are being made, that's the best way to deal with a pandemic—radical transparency, the opposite of weaponizing information."

Looking to the future, Brilliant seemed confident that the global community could stem the spread of the virus if individuals and governments take steps to flatten the curve.

"I firmly believe that the steps that we're taking will extend the time that it takes for the virus to make the rounds," Brilliant told Wired. "I think that, in turn, will increase the likelihood that we will have a vaccine or we will have a prophylactic antiviral in time to cut off, reduce, or truncate the spread. Everybody needs to remember: This is not a zombie apocalypse. It's not a mass extinction event."

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