This Pandemic Is Not Even the ‘Big One’
Covid-19 is merely a wake-up call to scenarios that keep infectious-disease experts up at night
As bad as Covid-19 seems, the world has grown increasingly vulnerable to an even deadlier global outbreak that experts expect is inevitable. It’s unclear when and where a more aggressive pathogen will emerge, but scientists say it will almost surely threaten an even worse pandemic than Covid-19.
“This pandemic has been very severe, has spread around the world extremely quickly, it has affected every corner of this planet. But this is not necessarily the big one,” says Mike Ryan, MD, an expert on emerging epidemics and executive director of the Emergencies Program at the World Health Organization (WHO). “This virus is very transmissible,” Ryan says. “But its current case fatality rate is reasonably low in comparison to other emerging diseases. This is a wake-up call.”
Other infectious disease experts agree. “While Covid-19 has been terrible, what is more concerning is a virus that would be both highly transmissible and more virulent than SARS-CoV-2 has been to date,” says Tara C. Smith, PhD, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Kent State University.
“This virus is very transmissible. But its current case fatality rate is reasonably low in comparison to other emerging diseases. This is a wake-up call.”
Importantly, the global community — and particularly the United States — won’t be prepared to battle the “big one” unless more is invested in research and preparedness and, critically, if we don’t collectively learn from the history we’re currently living through. “I think the United States’ response to SARS-CoV-2 shows that pretty dramatically,” Smith tells Elemental. “Other places have done better — such as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand — but globally, response overall has been dire.”
A spectrum of virulence
There are some 1.6 million known viruses circulating in animals. At least 600,000 of them have the potential to cross the species barrier and infect humans. Concern is fueled by outdoor markets in parts of Asia…