A Different History of Pandemic-Risk Research

Doctors, in trying to ward off the pandemic of 1918-19, targeted that most important of the animal proteins that pose the greatest danger—the protein that is most concentrated in the lungs and vascular system….

A Different History of Pandemic-Risk Research

Doctors, in trying to ward off the pandemic of 1918-19, targeted that most important of the animal proteins that pose the greatest danger—the protein that is most concentrated in the lungs and vascular system. This protein, as a low-cost vector, was the only path to pandemic agents for most mammals, and the dominant path in humans. Why? Because by starving people of proteins that trigger an immune response and preventing them from producing antibodies that do anything, humans became more vulnerable. As epidemiologist Joseph Cortright has noted, “Bacteria had figured out how to kill animals faster than people. We had figured out how to slow down the evolutionary process.”

But since the World War II avian flu research and the emergence of the H5N1 strain, the sequencing of antigens, isolates of viruses and subsequent safe-use and storage of antiviral drugs have reduced risk greatly—or at least a lot—but have they really changed the chances of a mass pandemic?

In 2009 and 2010, I conducted extensive research on the state of the world in terms of pandemic-risk research. Prior to my research, many public-health officials raised concerns about how difficult it was to find infectious agents so that scientists could test treatments and vaccines. I outlined how some scientists were finding genetic changes (a critical goal) but few circulating viruses; how scientists got to high genetic profiles but few actual pandemic viruses; and the widespread concern that the science was so aggressive that by the time the research was finished, one of these virus experiments could have become known and released into the public. Some wondered why certain countries have been so easy to find and some countries have not. Some wondered whether this should change the priorities in order to ensure wider distribution of those experiments?

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