The coronavirus outbreak is the shape of things to come

The Wuhan coronavirus, now officially named COVID-19, reveals how vulnerable humanity remains to virulent pathogens. A century after the devastating Spanish flu pandemic, public health officials are scrambling to prevent this latest plague—which as of Feb. 24 had infected more than 79,000 people in at least 29 countries, most of them in China—from becoming another pandemic. As they do, it’s worth taking a step back to consider the stubborn staying power of infectious disease. Far from an anomaly, this outbreak is the shape of things to come…

Today, development and globalization are driving a new era of infectious disease. Since 1980, scientists have discovered new human pathogens at a rate of more than three per year. Nearly three quarters are viruses, and the vast majority are zoonoses, or diseases that leap from one animal reservoir to another, often recombining DNA along the way. As humans exploit and disrupt once isolated ecosystems, they and their domesticates inevitably come into closer contact with wild species and the novel pathogens they host…

Humans aren’t just exploiting new ecosystems, of course. We’re traveling the world in record numbers and at unprecedented speeds, potentially carrying new diseases with us. In 2017, more than 20,000 cities were connected by regular air service, and the total number of airline passengers topped 4 billion, a figure expected to double by 2037. International tourist arrivals, meanwhile, have jumped 56-fold since 1950, from 25 million to 1.4 billion in 2018. The speed and complexity of modern transportation has eliminated geographic distance as a barrier to disease. A decade ago, most experts, including yours truly, predicted that Ebola outbreaks would continue to flame out in remote locations without endangering global health. The 2014 epidemic in West Africa, which killed more than 11,000 in largely urban settings and could easily have spread by airplane, ended that comfortable assumption.

Surging human mobility, as well as the global economy’s dependence on complex supply chains, puts public officials in a terrible bind, complicating the “drawbridge” strategy that societies have historically used to control epidemics.

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