Why we need worst-case thinking to prevent pandemics

Threats to humanity, and how we address them, define our time. Why are we still so complacent about facing up to existential risk? By Toby Ord

The world is in the early stages of what may be the most deadly pandemic of the past 100 years. In China, thousands of people have already died; large outbreaks have begun in South Korea, Iran and Italy; and the rest of the world is bracing for impact. We do not yet know whether the final toll will be measured in thousands or hundreds of thousands. For all our advances in medicine, humanity remains much more vulnerable to pandemics than we would like to believe.

To understand our vulnerability, and to determine what steps must be taken to end it, it is useful to ask about the very worst-case scenarios. Just how bad could a pandemic be? In science fiction, we sometimes encounter the idea of a pandemic so severe that it could cause the end of civilisation, or even of humanity itself. Such a risk to humanity’s entire future is known as an existential risk. We can say with certainty that the novel coronavirus, named Covid-19, does not pose such a risk. But could the next pandemic? To find out, and to put the current outbreak into greater context, let us turn to the past.

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