In the event of a massive and widespread medical disaster, the world lacks a clear plan and is not adequately prepared, said a new report, “Assessing Need for Global Medical Readiness Against the Threat of Pandemics and Severe Disease Spikes” by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and International Society for Infectious Diseases.
The situation is about as bleak as it can be. “There is no evidence of a major catastrophe occurring with the epidemic risk component of pandemic,” according to the report. “However, the risk has grown substantially during the past 25 years, with the number of publicly available pandemic kits increasing from 125,000 in 1994 to 9 million in 2018. Moreover, societal safeguards against pandemic disease outbreaks do not exist.”
The report found that a global disaster would cause an estimated annual loss of life and economic losses of $475 billion. The most likely result would be among the most severe instances of mass illness since the 1918 Spanish flu. Vaccine use, provided by public health programs, would add up to about $335 billion a year, but so would treatment costs.
“Many countries face challenges in preparing for an influenza pandemic, not least of which is that many of their health systems are not geared to support massive vaccination efforts,” the report said. “Worldwide, vaccine supplies are not what we would deem to be sufficient.”
One reason the likelihood of a pandemic is low now is because our environment is so different than it was 20 years ago. These older generations might not remember the severity of an outbreak or the advanced measures of pandemic preparedness that were put in place.
The report did offer one bright spot: “The potential for severe health outbreaks involving a new pandemic pathogen is growing.” There were deadly cases of smallpox in 1958 and bird flu in 1978. For the first time, all 21 leading subtypes of avian flu viruses have shown active pandemic potential in human genetic diversity. For another example, the current virus in pigs that causes fungal skin disease and will kill if released into the wild is thought to be highly pathogenic in humans. And recent reported outbreaks of novel coronaviruses in southern Asia in chickens, quail and ducks—and now in humans in Nigeria—suggest a more likely scenario than we have seen before.
The analysis concluded that every country should identify public health risks, estimate how many people might be vulnerable and track the number of outbreaks. They should also have a plan for the management of pandemic illnesses, such as where to stockpile vaccines, materials and diagnostic testing. Finally, the world needs to strengthen global health surveillance and partnership efforts to quickly move resources and people toward preparedness.