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.

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Image source: NASA/Big Think
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  • Puzzles posed by the Oort cloud and the possibility of Planet 9 may be solved by a new theory of our sun's lost companion.
  • The sun and its partner would have become separated long, long ago.

If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

No object in the Oort cloud has been directly observed, though Voyager 1 and 2, New Horizons, and Pioneer 10 and 11 are all en route. (The cloud is so far away that all five of the craft will be dead by the time they get there.) To derive a clearer view of the Oort cloud absent actually imagery, scientists utilize computer models based on planetary orbits, solar-system formation simulations, and comet trajectories.

It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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