Assessing Pandemics

As pandemics go, a virus that produces a lower average mortality rate can have greater overall lethality than a much deadlier virus because of its ability to spread. As Nathan Wolfe puts it in The Viral Storm, “A very deadly epidemic that doesn’t seem to be spreading is less worrying than a nominally deadly pandemic that’s moving at a fast clip.” The fatality rate for Covid-19 is estimated anywhere between 1 and 3.4 percent. For a comparison, Wolfe says the mortality rate for the 1918 epidemic (called the “Spanish” flu), “may be even lower than 2.5 percent, as many deaths were probably caused by secondary bacterial infections.”

Wolfe’s book was published in 2011. Virologists have been warning of the near certainty of future pandemics for many years now. Increased travel, industrial farming methods, loss of habitat for wildlife, and climate change all increase the risk of pandemic in various ways.

Covid-19 may quietly fade away as new cases decrease, or it may become much less deadly to the point that it causes few symptoms, or it may continue to spread rapidly and kill many people. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but I do know we (meaning the human race) must prepare for ongoing pandemics, because they are not going away.

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