Experts with the World Health Organization issued a somber warning on Monday: The next pandemic to strike humanity could be even more devastating than covid-19 has been, especially if we don’t learn our lessons this time around.
The warning came from Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, during a press briefing yesterday—the last to be held by the WHO this year. Ryan noted that while the covid-19 pandemic has certainly been very severe, it wasn’t “necessarily the big one” that experts have been dreading. Rather, it should be seen more as a wake-up call.
“The planet is fragile. We live in an increasingly complex global society,” Ryan said. “These threats will continue.”
Currently, the pandemic is thought to have claimed at least 1.7 million lives worldwide, and many more have been hospitalized or left with lingering health complications. But the official deaths attributed to covid-19 are clearly an underestimate. On Monday, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova admitted that the country has experienced around 186,000 excess deaths linked to the virus—more than three times Russia’s official death toll. The pandemic has also disrupted nearly every aspect of society and worsened existing public health crises like antibiotic resistance. Yet, things could be a lot worse.
That’s because the fatality rate of covid-19 is relatively low, at least compared to certain other much-feared diseases. The chances of dying from covid-19 are highly dependent on factors like age and preexisting health. But overall, likely somewhere between 0.5% to 1% of people who contract the disease are thought to die from it. This still makes covid-19 much deadlier than common illnesses like the flu. And the 2020 pandemic’s final death toll will overshadow any pandemic since the 1918 flu, which killed 50 million people worldwide (HIV, sometimes considered a pandemic, has killed more people but over a much longer time period).
It wouldn’t take much for the next pandemic germ to be more destructive than covid-19, though. The next pandemic could be 10 times deadlier and still only have a fatality rate in the single digits, while remaining as easily transmissible.
Pandemics are inevitable, but we’re not helpless against them. The record-setting development of effective covid-19 vaccines in less than a year shows that much at least. At the same time, the delayed and often inadequate response to contain the pandemic by many countries this year also shows that there’s much room for improvement.
“If there is one thing we need to take from this pandemic, with all of the tragedy and loss, is we need to get our act together. We need to get ready for something that may even be more severe,” said Ryan.