The next pandemic is inevitable. Are we prepared?

Budget cuts to pandemic preparedness put us all at risk.

LARRY BRILLIANT: It's not a question of if we will have a pandemic, it's a question of when. 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. We won't have a vaccine or an antiviral on the first few days of a pandemic, so what we have to respond with is good public health. We have to be able to do isolation, social distancing, containment, messaging, all of those things. It is unlikely that that first case is going to take place in New York City or Chicago. It is likely that it will take place in a poor country at the periphery of the country far away from the capital.

That's what happened with Ebola, a perfect storm. The first cases took place at the border of three post conflict impoverished countries that didn't have a very good public health infrastructure. And they started asking WHO to send in teams and to send in resources it was right around the time of the World Health Assembly, which takes place in May. And the World Health Assembly had said to the WHO management that they had to find a way to cut their budget. And unfortunately the budget part that they cut was pandemic prevention, infectious disease control and immediate response to outbreaks. The net of that, the sad net of that is that it was six months before there was the declaration of an infectious disease of global significance, which is WHO's way of saying this is all in let's send everybody do everything we can do. We were on a trajectory to reach hundreds of thousands of cases. And CDC actually estimated that we were on a trajectory to reach over one million cases. Had not Obama and the U.S. jumped in with even military resources and sending them food - I mean Médecins Sans Frontières were heroes.

But I think here's the lesson for us right now in the United States is we have an administration that wants to cut the size of government and freeze hiring and not hire new people. We have to staff up for pandemic prevention. It is a low probability but a highly consequential event. These are the worst things to deal with.

I was at an event called the Renaissance Weekend a couple of years ago and we had just made a movie called Contagion. And I wanted to make a movie that really looked like what a real pandemic would look like and that's what Contagion was, the science was impeccable. So I showed this movie at the Renaissance Weekend and one of the most conservative Republicans in the country, part of a think tank that everybody knows, he spoke after me and he said, "I saw Contagion, I saw the movie. I realize now what a pandemic is like. I understand that government has got to be ready. So I've been telling people in the tea party, 'Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut the budget, cut everything. Cut cut, cut. Don't leave anything uncut.' And then I saw Contagion. And now I say something similar, I say, 'Cut, cut, cut. Cut everything except pandemic preparedness.'" There are a number of things which are highly consequential and very difficult to plan for and understand and we only can do that with government and with international agencies. The private sector, corporations and foundations can't do it.

  • There is no way to completely stop a pandemic from coming, says former United Nations medical officer and a key player in the World Health Organization's (WHO) smallpox eradication program in South Asia, Larry Brilliant. Being prepared and having a good public health infrastructure are necessary to reduce impact.
  • Pandemics like ebola are more likely to start at the edges of poor countries, away from the main hub and away from major cities, but without isolation and containment protocols they can and will grow.
  • According to Brilliant, budget cuts and poor decision making by government in the past has crippled pandemic prevention efforts in time of crisis. That's something that we can not let happen again.

Does science tell the truth?

It is impossible for science to arrive at ultimate truths, but functional truths are good enough.

Credit: Sergey Nivens / 202871840
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  • What is truth? This is a very tricky question, trickier than many would like to admit.
  • Science does arrive at what we can call functional truth, that is, when it focuses on what something does as opposed to what something is. We know how gravity operates, but not what gravity is, a notion that has changed over time and will probably change again.
  • The conclusion is that there are not absolute final truths, only functional truths that are agreed upon by consensus. The essential difference is that scientific truths are agreed upon by factual evidence, while most other truths are based on belief.
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A canvas of nonsense: how Dada reflects a world gone mad through art

Using urinals, psychological collages, and animated furniture to shock us into reality.

Credit: MICHELE LIMINA via Getty Images
Culture & Religion
  • Dada is a provocative and surreal art movement born out of the madness of World War I.
  • Tzara, a key Dada theorist, says Dada seeks "to confuse and upset, to shake and jolt" people from their comfort zones.
  • Dada, as all avant-garde art, faces a key problem in how to stay true to its philosophy.
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Physicists Accidentally Discover a Self-Destruct Button for the Entire Universe

Unfortunately, humanity will never see it coming. 

 

A computer image of a Higgs interaction. By Lucas Taylor / CERN, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia Commons.
Technology & Innovation

It sounds like a plot from a comic book or a sci-fi film, a theory that got a boost when one of the greatest discoveries in physics in the modern era, the discovery of the “God particle,”or the Higgs boson, the missing piece in the Standard Model of particle physics. In the preface to his book Starmus, Stephen Hawking warns that the Higgs Boson field could collapse, resulting in a chain reaction that would take in the whole universe with it.  

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Study: Tripping might not be required for psychedelic therapy

Two different studies provide further evidence of the efficacy of psychedelics in treating depression.

Photo: agsandrew / Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • A phase 2 clinical trial by Imperial College London found psilocybin to be as effective at treating depression as escitalopram, a commonly prescribed antidepressant.
  • A different study by the University of Maryland showed that blocking the hallucinogenic effects of magic mushrooms in mice did not reduce the antidepressant effect.
  • Combined, these studies could lead to new ways of applying psychedelics to patient populations that don't want to trip.
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