Prophets of doom have been telling us for decades that a deadly new pandemic — of bird flu, of SARS or MERS coronavirus, and now of Ebola — is on its way. Why are we still listening?
If you look back at the furor raised at many distinguished publications — Nature, Science, Scientific American, National Geographic — back in, say, 2005, about a potential bird flu (H5N1) pandemic, you wonder what planet they were on. Nature ran a special section titled — "Avian flu: Are we ready?" — that began, ominously, with the words "Trouble is brewing in the East" and went on to present a mock aftermath report detailing catastrophic civil breakdown.
Robert Webster, a famous influenza virologist, told ABC News in 2006 that "society just can't accept the idea that 50% of the population could die. And I think we have to face that possibility." Public health expert Michael T. Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, at a meeting in Washington of scientists brought together by the Institute of Medicine, warned in 2005 that a post-pandemic commission, like the post-9/11 commission, could hold "many scientists … accountable to that commission for what we did or didn't do to prevent a pandemic." He also predicted that we could be facing "three years of a given hell" as the world struggled to right itself after the deadly pandemic. And Laurie Garrett, author of what must be the urtext for pandemic predictions, her 1994 book "The Coming Plague," intoned in Foreign Affairs that "in short, doom may loom." Although she followed that with "But note the may," the article went on to paint a terrifying picture of the avian flu threat nonetheless.
And such hysteria still goes on: Whether it's over the MERS coronavirus, a whole alphabet of chicken flu viruses, a real but not very deadly influenza pandemic in 2009, or a kerfuffle like the one in 2012 over a scientist-crafted ferret flu that also was supposed to be a pandemic threat. Along the way, virologist Nathan Wolfe published "The Viral Storm: the Dawn of a New Pandemic Age," and David Quammen warned in his gripping "Spillover" that some new animal plague could arise from the jungle and sweep across the world.
And now there's Ebola. Osterholm, in a widely read op-ed in the New York Times in September, wrote about the possibility that scientists were afraid to mention publicly the danger they discuss privately: that Ebola "could mutate to become transmissible through the air." "The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has the potential to alter history as much as any plague has ever done," he wrote. And Garrett wrote in Foreign Policy, "Attention, World: You just don't get it." She went on to say, "Wake up, fools," because we should be more frightened of a potential scenario like the one in the movie "Contagion," in which a lethal, fictitious pandemic scours the world, nearly destroying civilization.
But there were fewer takers this time. Osterholm's claims about Ebola going airborne were discounted by serious scientists, and Garrett seemingly retracted her earlier hysteria about Ebola by claiming that, after all, evolution made such spread unlikely.
The scientific world has changed since 2005. Now, most scientists understand that there are significant physical and evolutionary barriers to a blood- and fluid-borne virus developing airborne transmission, as Garrett has acknowledged. Though Ebola virus has been detected in human alveolar cells, as Vincent Racaniello, virologist at Columbia University, explained to me, that doesn't mean it can replicate in the airways enough to allow transmission. "Maybe … the virus can get in, but can't get out. Like a roach motel," wrote Racaniello in an email.
H5N1, we understand now, never went airborne because it attached only to cell receptors located deep in human lungs, and could not, therefore, be coughed or sneezed out. SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, caused local outbreaks after multiple introductions via air travel but spread only sluggishly and mostly in hospitals. Breaking its chains of transmission ended the outbreak globally. There probably will always be significant barriers preventing the easy adaptation of an animal disease to the human species. Furthermore, Racaniello insists that there are no recorded instances of viruses that have adapted to humans, changing the way they are spread.
So we need to stop listening to the doomsayers, and we need to do it now. Predictions of lethal pandemics have — since the swine flu fiasco of 1976, when President Ford vowed to vaccinate "every man, woman and child in the United States" — always been wrong. Fear-mongering wastes our time and our emotions and diverts resources from where they should be directed — in the case of Ebola, to the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. Americans have all but forgotten about Ebola now, because most people realize it isn't coming to a school or a shopping mall near you. But Sierra Leoneans and Liberians go on dying.
Wendy Orent is the author of "Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease" and "Ticked: The Battle Over Lyme Disease in the South."