Pandemics are not that rare as it appears. Using a probabilistic model similar to the one used for natural disasters, a team of scientists at Duke University has studied how often pandemics occur in relation to their severity.
The current pandemic may seem extraordinary, but pandemics are actually not that rare. The last flu was the H1N1 flu in 2009, which killed between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide. But with nearly 4.5 million deaths, Covid-19 is the most severe pandemic since the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed between 20 and 50 million people.
Researchers at Duke University have calculated the likelihood that such an event will occur again in the next few years.
One Covid 19-like epidemic every 59 years.
They counted all major pandemics since 1600 that killed more than 10,000 people, excluding diseases that are still endemic, such as AIDS or malaria, and diseases that became curable with a vaccine or antibiotics. They then applied a probabilistic model similar to the one used to calculate the frequency of extreme weather events.
According to the model, the probability of a Covid 19-like pandemic occurring in a given year is 2%, which means that we will experience a new pandemic within 59 years. This does not mean that the next pandemic will occur in 59 years,” warns Gabriel Katul, co-author of the study published in PNAS. If we talk about a 100-year flood, for example, it’s possible that several will occur within 100 years.
A pandemic like the Spanish flu every 400 years
The probability of a Comparing COVID-19 to the 1918 Spanish Flu is estimated to be between 0.3% and 1.9% in a given year, or one pandemic every 400 years. However, this estimate may still be too optimistic, the authors suggest. Indeed, the model shows that the occurrence or recurrence of epidemics has tended to increase in recent decades. Taking this acceleration into account, the probability is multiplied by three, i.e., one Spanish flu-type pandemic every 127 years.
It may seem strange to observe such an acceleration when we have made considerable progress in disease prevention, epidemic surveillance, and hygiene. Researchers cite deteriorating environmental conditions, more frequent contact between humans and animals that can transmit pathogens, lack of health infrastructure in some countries, and lack of cooperation among nations as possible explanations.
Humanity wiped off the planet Within 12,000 years
“The basic message of our study is that the occurrence of the next pandemic is very likely in the coming years,” says William Pan, associate professor of health and environment at Duke University. So it’s important to develop ways to monitor and control them when they do occur. We also need to learn which response measures are useful and which are not, such as the widespread use of masks or lockdowns.
Could a major pandemic wipe humanity off the face of the earth? This question was not addressed in the paper, but the researchers applied their model to this hypothesis. The result: a pandemic that would wipe out all humans could occur within the next 12,000 years. By then, we could have already been wiped out by a volcanic super-eruption, an asteroid, or global warming.
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