My wish: Help me stop pandemics

A TED video by Larry Brilliant, made at TED Monterey, California, February 2006

Given the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic the world is facing now (the end of March 2020), I found this talk by Larry Brilliant amazing. I didn’t realise the world is under almost constant threat of pandemics. I wish I’d been made aware of this a few months before COVID-19 came along. If you’re interested, please watch the video here. I’ll make some of my own comments below, and add links to other resources.

My favourite quotes – My wish: Help me stop pandemics

“it was the largest campaign in United Nations history until the Iraq war. 150,000 people from all over the world. Doctors of every race, religion, culture and nation, who fought side-by-side, brothers and sisters, with each other, not against each other, in a common cause to make the world better”

  • “the key to eradicating smallpox was, early detection, early response”
  • “we declared smallpox eradicated in 1980”
  • “India was the place where smallpox made its last stand”
  • to eradicate smallpox “mass vaccinations wouldn’t work! You could vaccinate everybody in India but one year later there’d be 21 million new babies which was then the population of Canada. It wouldn’t do to just vaccinate everyone, you have to find every single case of smallpox in the world, at the same time, and draw a circle of immunity around it”
  • “every time we did a house to house search, we had a spike in the number of cases of smallpox”
  • “it was the largest campaign in United Nations history until the Iraq war. 150,000 people from all over the world. Doctors of every race, religion, culture and nation, who fought side-by-side, brothers and sisters, with each other, not against each other, in a common cause to make the world better”
  • “instead of finding out what we thought was the case – that blindness was caused mostly by glaucoma and trachoma – we were astounded to find out that blindness was caused instead by cataract. You can’t cure or prevent what you don’t know is there”
  • “90% said they thought there’d be a pandemic within your children’s or your grandchildren’s lifetime … as many as 165 million people would die … there would be a global recession and depression as our just-in-time inventory system and the tight rubber band of globalisation broke, and the cost to our economy of 1-3 trillion dollars would be far worse for everyone than ‘merely’ a 100 million people dying, because so many more people would lose their jobs and their health care benefits, that the consequences are almost unthinkable”
  • “And it’s getting worse, because travel is getting so much better.”
  • “It is so obvious that our only way of dealing with these new diseases is to find them early and to kill them before they spread”
  • “in 1997 there was an outbreak of bird flu – H5N1 – it was in Hong Kong – and a remarkable doctor in Hong Kong responded immediately by slaughtering 1.5 million chickens and birds and they stopped that outbreak in its tracks. Immediate detection, immediate response.”
  • “Can you find diseases early by crawling the web? Of course you can. Can you them even earlier than GPHIN does now? Of course you can.”
  • “I want to make it part of our culture that there is a community of people who are watching out for the worst nightmares of humanity, and that its accessible to everyone.”

Related Resources

  • In the talk, Larry mentions GPHIN – you can find out more about GPHIN from this WHO webpage – https://www.who.int/csr/alertresponse/epidemicintelligence/en/
  • Larry also mentions his aspiration to build a group called InSTEDD on top of GPHIN, for the early detection of pandemics. A non-profit organisation called InSTEDD actually got going with seed funding (from Google and the Rockefeller Foundation), and they’re still going today although their mission seems to have changed somewhat. You can find them here – https://instedd.org
  • I found that InSTEDD has a nice resource called “Pandemic Influenza and Respiratory Illness Preparation and Response: A Citizen’s Guide”. You can download the March 1st, 2020 update of this guide using the following link.
  • Larry Brilliant is now chairman of the board of a new organisation (started in 2018) called “Ending Pandemics“. To me, it seems like Ending Pandemics is closer to Larry’s 2006 vision than InSTEDD. You can find out more about Ending Pandemics here – https://endingpandemics.org
  • Ending Pandemics has an interesting graphic on their home page, as shown below. Looks like our easily connected world now, with simple cheap flying, combined with 70% of countries not being prepared to respond, is a recipe for disaster.

ending pandemics

2 Responses to “My wish: Help me stop pandemics”

  1. Simon Robinson

    Cheap air travel maybe a thing of the past. Imagine how Europe would cope if just 1% of the people living in China and India decided to take a European package holiday in 2021. Tourism may be the biggest class of business casualty.

    Reply
  2. Peter

    Hi Simon – I just read that Tim Harford article you recommended. Very interesting. The main thought that sticks with me after reading that is, what if Covid-19 will be seen (in hindsight) as a warning for some worse that’s coming. Will we take it as a warning and be better prepared from here on? I hope so.

    Reply

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