Everything changed this week. The response to the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus upended all of our lives.
Workplaces shut down. Schools were closed. Major league sports suspended their seasons. Airlines cut their flight schedules. Hospitals began preparing for a predicted surge of patients. And on Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency.
Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm, who warned in 2005 that "time is running out to prepare for the next pandemic," said in a conversation with Peter Bergen that America faces a huge challenge: "We are worse off today than we were in 2017 [Archive] because the health care system is stretched thinner now than ever. There is no excess capacity. And public health funding has been cut under this administration."
Dr. Osterholm is Regents Professor, McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in Public Health, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, a professor in the Technological Leadership Institute, College of Science and Engineering, and an adjunct professor in the Medical School, all at the University of Minnesota. From June 2018 through May 2019, he served as a Science Envoy for Health Security on behalf of the US Department of State. He is also on the Board of Regents at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
Wow! That's a lot of qualifications. He must have been around for a while. I wonder what he said about previous pandemics?
Today, public health experts and infectious-disease scientists do not know whether H5N1 avian influenzavirus threatens an imminent pandemic. Most indications, however, suggest that it is just a matter of time: witness the increasing number of H5N1 infections in humans and animals, the documentation of additional small clusters of cases suggestive of near misses with respect to sustained human-to-human transmission, the ongoing genetic changes in the H5N1 Z genotype that have increased its pathogenicity, and the existence in Asia of a genetic-reassortment laboratory — the mix of an unprecedented number of people, pigs, and poultry.
[W]hile sporadic human cases and bird-related outbreaks continue, the last worrisome cluster of human cases emerged more than a year ago. And the much-anticipated trigger that would launch many pandemic plans—sustained human-to-human transmission of the deadly H5N1 strain of influenza—has yet to occur. Maybe you are even questioning whether this current level of bird and human virus activity is the "new normal." Perhaps you're wondering if you can relax your preparedness efforts a bit.
The answer is absolutely not. The risk of H5N1 causing a pandemic remains very real. Yet no one with a credible understanding of influenza virology can put odds on that risk.
Moving on, let's look at H1N1 (swine flu) which was a pandemic. The numbers (Reuters):
The WHO’s official data show 18,500 people were reported killed by the H1N1 flu. But a study published in The Lancet last year said the actual death toll may have been up to 15 times higher at more than 280,000.
[W]ith H1N1, more than 85% of the deaths worldwide were among people younger than 60 years of age. Using the lens of years of potential life lost at age 65 (as our group has in its preliminary analysis), suddenly the H1N1 pandemic takes on a new perspective. . . . As I discussed above, we may be a long way off from writing the obit for this current pandemic. No, the world did not overreact to the novel H1N1 pandemic. Thank goodness it hasn't been a 1918-like experience. But the first pandemic of the 21st century has done a lot more health damage than has been clearly described to date.
Indeed, our own Dr. Osterholm co-authored a paper leading the idea that it had been more deadly than thought.
Ebola (2014 and 2019)
The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has the potential to alter history as much as any plague has ever done. . . .
There are two possible future chapters to this story that should keep us up at night.
The first possibility is that the Ebola virus spreads from West Africa to megacities in other regions of the developing world. . . .
The second possibility is one that virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely considering in private: that an Ebola virus could mutate to become transmissible through the air.
Now, that's Ebola (2014-2016) which is when Dr. Osterholm wrote that. It's notable that, when searching, that's the first thing that comes up. Because, we also have Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2019. Per the CDC (Archive) again:
As of November 17, 2019, a total of 3,296 Ebola cases and 2,196 (67%) deaths have been reported.
“We’re at a critical time in this outbreak,” Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, told STAT.
Osterholm said it was necessary to rethink the approach being taken to contain the epidemic, which was declared on Aug. 1. “Doing the same thing over and over again does not appear to be working,” he said.
One more, SARS, which is a coronavirus. The case and death total? 8,098 cases and 774 deaths (Healthline, Archive). Dr. Osterholm wasn't writing as prolifically then. But, he was a source. Via the New York Times (Archive):
And unlike Canada, where a single SARS patient infected dozens of others, the United States has apparently had no such ''super spreaders.
''''We were very fortunate,'' said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease, Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. ''Toronto could just as easily have been Minneapolis, Buffalo or Chicago.''
Some, including Dr. Osterholm, worry that SARS could wane in the warm months, then come roaring back in the fall.
You've no doubt seen or heard so-called "experts" pronounce the complete and final dénouement of the novel H1N1 pandemic on the pages of newspapers, on Web sites, and in broadcast sound bites. Wouldn't we all like to put the pandemic behind us? Resist the temptation, as hard as it is. If I have one critical message for you today it's this: Never forget this simple influenza mantra—expect the unexpected.
Infectious diseases expert Michael Osterholm uses the example of a volcano to describe the situation, likening these SARS-like viruses to the magma that roils under the earth's crust.
"As long as those viruses are in that animal kingdom, there's always going to be a potential for an eruption," says Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
I want to focus on that last line. He runs a center for infectious diseases. He's always calling on things to be worse. Has he been right once? In every example, he's said the sky is falling. It hasn't fallen yet. He might be an expert at creating vaccines. But, he's not an expert on pandemics, unless you consider having a lot of knowledge and always being wrong an expert.
I don't like ad-hominems. But, his credentials are the reason he's quoted. With his record, I can't see a reason why we should trust him. And, that's the problem. He has one of the best resumes of experts out there. But, his track record is bad. Why should we trust experts? Seriously, why?