How to tackle pandemics

How It Works: What disease do you think will cause the next pandemic?

John Edmunds: Flu! Well, I don’t know if it will cause the next one, but it will definitely cause a pandemic in the future. As for other diseases, it’s hard to predict. There are various surveillance efforts underway to see which pathogens are circulating among animals to gain some understanding of what the most likely pandemics will be. It’s still a huge guess frankly, but it’s worth keeping track of these diseases and characterising them because, if they do start spreading in humans, we need to know about them.

HIW: How is our track record for detecting and dealing with pandemics?

JE: We’re very good at responding to these things now. There’s a lot of fuss about the 2009 flu pandemic, but that virus was sequenced from top to tail in a matter of days after the first cases were isolated. We knew an awful lot about it very quickly. The same goes for the SARS virus.

HIW: Could a pandemic end humanity?

JE: I suppose it could. But do I think it will? No. Medical and allied sciences like epidemiology and modelling are so strong now. But there’s a significant risk to certain populations – especially the countries that don’t have the facilities to respond. Take SARS – we got on top of it just in time. The countries that it initially spread to had well-functioning health systems. But there are other countries that aren’t in that category, like India or Indonesia. What if it had jumped from there to Africa? Would we have been able to stop it spreading in those settings? It would have been incredibly difficult. So I think it’s unlikely a pandemic would wipe out humanity, but it could cause huge damage, particularly in some areas of the world with weak health infrastructure.

For more about Professor Edmunds’ work, visit the flu outbreak monitoring site.