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The covid-19 pandemic was predicted – here’s how to stop the next one

Covid-19 isn’t the first pandemic humanity has faced and it won’t be the last. What has happened offers lessons about how to judge and respond to virus warnings in future


16 September 2020

IN JULY, George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, published an alarming paper. He and his colleagues had discovered that a new kind of swine flu was sweeping to dominance in China’s pigs and spreading to people. “(It) has all the hallmarks of a candidate pandemic virus,” they said. That same month, European virologists also warned of a similarly worrying swine flu in European pigs. We know flu pandemics happen regularly. What if one struck while we are still reeling from covid-19? Can we stop that happening?

Not if the past is any judge. In 2004, US virologists warned about another strain of swine flu; five years later it went pandemic. The warning had been so widely ignored that the pandemic came as a surprise even to many virologists. And swine flu is just the start. In recent years, virologists have warned about potential pandemics from bird flu to coronaviruses like those behind SARS and MERS – warnings that came true with covid-19. In south Asia, the super-deadly Nipah virus is starting to spread between people in respiratory droplets. Few have even heard of it.

There are many potentially pandemic viruses out there, and some are far worse than the one we are currently fighting. Disease experts have been issuing warnings for years, but covid-19 showed how unprepared the world was for an outbreak. One lab in Wuhan even warned of the very viruses that spawned covid-19. No one did anything. If this pandemic is to finally change that, lessons must be learned from how we missed the warning …