- COVID-19 has steamrolled the country. What happens if another pandemic starts before this one is over?
Seven years ago, the White House was bracing itself for not one pandemic, but two. In the spring of 2013, several people in China fell sick with a new and lethal strain of H7N9 bird flu, while an outbreak of MERS—a disease caused by a coronavirus—had spread from Saudi Arabia to several other countries. “We were dealing with the potential for both of those things to become a pandemic,” says Beth Cameron, who was on the National Security Council at the time.
Neither did, thankfully, but we shouldn’t mistake historical luck for future security. Viruses aren’t sporting. They will not refrain from kicking you just because another virus has already knocked you to the floor. And pandemics are capricious. Despite a lot of research, “we haven’t found a way to predict when a new one will arrive,” says Nídia Trovão, a virologist at the National Institutes of Health. As new diseases emerge at a quickening pace, the only certainty is that pandemics are inevitable. So it is only a matter of time before two emerge at once.
“We have to prepare for a pandemic to happen at any time, and ‘any time’ can be when we’re already dealing with one pandemic,” Cameron told me.