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Did people predict the pandemic? True

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For some, Bill Gates predicted the pandemic, so that proves he must be hiding something. For others, nobody could have predicted a health crisis of this magnitude. The Rumour Detector explains why both statements are false.

It’s certainly true that American billionaire Bill Gates, several times over the years, warned of the potential dangers of a pandemic. “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it's most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war,” he estimated in a 2015 TED Talk. He expressed concern about the lack of investment in preventing epidemics. The Ebola epidemic may have been contained due the nature of the virus, which doesn’t spread through the air. But other viruses could work differently. “So next time, we might not be so lucky. You can have a virus where people feel well enough while they're infectious that they get on a plane or they go to a market,” he said.

But Bill Gates wasn’t the only person to predict the future. The American film Contagion (2011) set an audience record the last few months. One of the people behind this production was Jeff Skoll, another American billionaire who has invested for over a decade in initiatives preparing for pandemics. According to Forbes Magazine, “while many viewed the film as pure science fiction, Skoll had ulterior motives. He hoped the movie would help build support for funding the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and also warn the world about the potential dangers of a global pandemic.”

Several other Cassandras raised their voices over the years. They ranged from epidemiologists like Larry Brilliant and Michael Osterholm, to journalist Laurie Garrett in a prophetic report published in 2005. Québec Science magazine, in October 2019, published an article entitled “Prêts pour la prochaine pandémie?” (Ready for the next pandemic?”), warning it “may happen sooner than you think”.


Scientific studies saw the dangers of coronaviruses

A scientific literature review has been cited often since the beginning of the pandemic: Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus as an Agent of Emerging and Reemerging Infection. It was published in 2007, four years after SARS, caused by a coronavirus similar to the one sweeping the world this year. The analysis warned against the probable resurgence of a coronavirus epidemic. SARS had probably originated in civets sold in the wild animal markets of South China. But the authors were already focusing on bats. “The presence of a large reservoir of SARS-CoV-like viruses in horseshoe bats, together with the culture of eating exotic mammals in southern China, is a time bomb,” they warned.

In 2015, a study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in Virology Journal, also raised the alarm about the need to monitor bats, the second largest group of mammal species. ”Considering that bats have been known to harbor more coronaviruses than any other species, it is likely that SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV won’t be the only bat coronaviruses to jump among species and cause human infections,” the authors argued.


Calls for better preparation were neglected

Beyond the risk posed by coronaviruses alone was the more general idea that the planet had to deploy strategies to guard against a pandemic. But this warning received little attention.

As Bloomberg Magazine suggested in February, COVID-19 could be the famous “Disease X” against which the WHO appealed for vigilance two years ago. The WHO called on the international community to prepare for the unexpected emergence of an epidemic disease for which no drugs or vaccines would be available. Speaking that same year at the World Economic Forum, the WHO Director reminded his audience that the world was not protected from such a scenario. He pointed out that over 3.5 billion people still lacked access to essential health care.

Also in 2018, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security created a simulation intended to gauge how governments would respond to a pandemic. This exercise, called Clade X, showed that the world wasn’t ready. Such a catastrophe would end up with 150 million deaths. Following the WHO’s appeal, the Johns Hopkins Center expressed concern after this exercise that “neither the United States nor any other country has a system in place now with the capacity to rapidly develop vaccines or medicines for such a disease”. The researchers also advised the United States to improve their healthcare system and their ability to detect and respond to epidemics. At the same time, the United States should work with the WHO to help all countries make the same improvements.

In Canada, in 2006, the Western Premiers’ Conference issued a news release on this theme. They asked their Ministers responsible for emergency preparedness to establish a national emergency response. Their concerns included acceleration of the vaccine development process, supply, and maintenance of the stock of antivirals. 

The massive Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector was published that same year. It was co-written by Theresa Tam, currently the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada and the leading federal scientific authority in the battle against COVID-19. The plan sought to prepare the health sector for an eventual pandemic, which it imagined would be caused by a future influenza virus. This plan was nothing new: a pandemic influenza plan has existed in Canada since 1988. But several of its predictions resonate with the current situation. It predicted that the virus would be present in Canada within 3 months after its emergence abroad and that the disease’s first peak could be reached 2 to 4 months later. The plan also foresaw that the pandemic would last 12 to 18 months, occurring in at least two waves. Each wave would last 6 to 8 weeks.

According to the Globe and Mail, the sense of urgency attached to this report was diluted over time. “It is one of several credible warnings that seem to have gone largely unheeded.” The Toronto daily added that “a 2010 federal audit flagged problems with the management of Canada’s emergency stockpile of medical equipment; a 2018 assessment of the H1N1 swine flu outbreak a decade earlier raised concerns about ventilator shortages”.

More recently, in fall 2019, a report by the Global Health Security Index sounded the alarm. After assessing the health services of 195 countries, it found that national health security was particularly weak around the world. Its title was: “No Country Is Prepared  For Epidemics or Pandemics”.


This article was originally published on the website of L'Agence Science-Presse (French only).



Crédit photo: Syaibatulhamdi / Pixabay


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