Apocalyptic thriller story couldn’t be better, an accident at a top-secret government bioweapons research facility in Russia. Recently, a gas explosion occurred at Vector, the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology in the science town of Koltsovo, some 20 km (12 miles) from Novosibirsk, the third most populous city in Russia.
The research center is one of only two places in the world allowed to retain a stock of the Variola viruses that cause smallpox. The other one is a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) facility in Atlanta.
One worker suffered third-degree burns after the blast, which blew out the glass in the building. A fire covering 30 square meters was later extinguished. Russian authorities insisted that the room where the explosion occurred was holding no biohazardous substances and that no structural damage was caused – so they say.
Vector is one of the leading research facilities in its field. It is a large center across several buildings with over 1,600 staff members who work on numerous bioresearch projects that involve a lot more than just some smallpox vials. The chances that the blast was letting loose a plague onto the world seem exceedingly small – so, for now, we will have to trust the officials in Russia. There are many safeguards in place; the chances of a pandemic accident are small. But there may be other pandemic risks to worry about. Here are four key pandemics the world must deal with:
- Natural mutations – Evolutionary mutations of viruses and other microorganisms happens every day. Seemly innocent microorganisms can mutate and at any time and become deadly. As an example, remember SARS? Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory disease of zoonotic origin caused by the SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Between November 2002 and July 2003, an outbreak of SARS in southern China caused 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths reported in 37 countries. As a result, every year, the world spends more than $50bn controlling epidemics such as avian influenza, HIV/Aids, malaria, and polio and responding to new threats such as Ebola.
- Gene hacking gone wrong – This has already occurred. Genetically-altered impotent mosquitoes mixed with the wild population in an effort to reduce the mosquito population. It worked initially, but 18 months later the population bounced right back and got even worse. Gene hacking biotech companies are still in their infancy. It’s only a matter of time until a miscalculation occurs – affecting food production or even enabling diseases harmful to humans.
- Bioterrorism – The history of biowarfare is long. In the 1300s, Tartar (Mongol) warriors besieged the Crimean city of Kaffa. During the siege, many Tartars died at the hands of the plague, and their lifeless, infected bodies were hurled over the city walls. In more modern times, in 2001, anthrax spores were sent through the U.S. postal system. In all, 22 people contracted anthrax – five died – the guilty party was never caught. No wild scale bioterror pandemic has yet to be unleashed in modern times – but people have speculated and wonder why it hasn’t occurred yet.
- Resurgence of old pandemics – In the last century alone, smallpox killed 300 to 500 million people. The 1918-19 Spanish flu killed 50 to 100 million, and Aids has taken 40 million lives since it was first recognized in 1981. The annual influenza outbreak still claims half a million people a year worldwide. Could these past pandemics make a resurgence? We read headlines like “Medical expert warns of possible leprosy outbreak among homeless in Los Angeles.” Another headline says, “Surging cases have dashed all hope that polio might be eradicated in 2019.” With poor health care management, old pandemics could become new pandemics.
Then there is the cost to a country’s or even the global economy. A severe and prolonged global pandemic could hit global GDP by as much as 5 – 10% in the first year – see Bank of America/Merrill Lynch 2015 Global Pandemics Primer report. This would be on top of the cost to fight the pandemic, sending the world into a global depression.
The CDC and other groups do a reasonably good job of keeping on top of pandemics, but there could be the big one that they won’t be able to handle. Bill Gates, who funds a group that uses computer simulations to predict the spread of diseases, said he put the likelihood of a catastrophic pandemic at “well over 50%” in his lifetime. News Forecasters would concur and even place this risk even higher.
If you have further thoughts on potential pandemics than we have stated, please feel free to comment and give us a heads up.
A video presentation of this subject: