Fight Global Pandemics (Or At Least Find a Good Excuse When You’re Playing Hooky)

If a genie came out of a bottle and gave me the choice between magically doing away with global warming or getting rid of the threat of global pandemics, I think I would choose the latter. I am probably in the minority on this one, but I think a pandemic might be the graver threat. A few years ago I even created a stash of food and water in my basement so that if a pandemic hit, my family could stay inside for a month or two until things got sorted out. I suppose it is time to restock the basement … we’ve used up most of the water in the family fish tank and the food is probably pretty stale.

What can we do to fight global pandemics? The single most powerful tool we have is probably the internet. Pandemics tend to start in remote locations. What we need is a way to extract the information from those places quickly to get a head start on keeping the epidemic tamed. The formal networks like the CDC do not seem to work all that well.

Larry Brilliant has just such a plan in mind. Brilliant won the coveted TED prize which allows the recipient to make three wishes that the TED community then helps to bring into reality. Brilliant’s plan, described in this TED video, is to devise a system that will crawl the internet looking for early clues that a pandemic might be starting. Last year he became head of Google’s non-profit arm. Could there be a better match?

I have not yet heard anything about progress towards achieving his goals. Perhaps a blog reader has an update to share?

In the meantime, I guess we will have to be content with something far less lofty:, which allows people who are sick to post their illnesses and lets others search by zip code to see what people in their area have caught. The amazing thing to me is that sick people actually post. When I’m sick, I might go onto Google to try to figure out what is wrong with me. I doubt, however, that I would want to bother to go tell that I feel awful. Certainly if I was about to die from the bird flu, it would not be top of mind.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the best use of the site is to figure out a credible excuse if you want to play hooky from work. Log onto the site, see what is going around in your area, and then tell the boss that it’s what you’ve got.

(Hat tip to Hunter Walk.)


I think Steve is part of the Pandemic Pandemic


I'd go for global warming. The reason being, pandemics are just infectious diseases writ big, and if you got rid of all infectious diseases today, they wouldn't stay gone. Quite the opposite, you'd leave a vast number of evolutionary niches wide open for any bacteria, virus, fungus and parasite to make use of; brand new diseases - brand new _kinds_ of diseases - for which we have absolutely no defenses at all. You'd just make things way, way worse, in other words.


I commonly call out sick due to global warming. I'm hoping the boss doesn't catch on soon that I'm not a polar bear.


Influenza is the human immune system's p2p communications system, that it uses to keep abreast of the latest virus technology.

Curing the common cold could be as crazy as killing the Internet in order to prevent copyright infringement.

So, please, be a little picky in the pandemics you propose to prosecute.


Historical pandemics have certainly killed many more people than previous climate fluctuations. The question is: can our superior medical technology make up for our vastly improved virus transportation? Dr. Levitt has one key, though; better communication will help us with both sides of the equation - we can quarantine quickly and we can reduce unnecessary travel by e-mail and phone. You wouldn't be a good economist though, if you didn't look at the incentives to cheat on communicating your health status. Like the people who come to work contagious - there will be many incentives for the Chinas of the world to suppress the knowledge of imminent infection.

Jim Driscoll

Yes, you're in the minority.

A spectacular, black swan event in pandemics would still wipe out no more than 50% of the population.

Changing climate, by causing massive crop failures (which would lead to wars, they always do), has the potential to kill far, far more - we're so overstuffed in most of the world that most countries (including some old world countries) are on a knife edge between how much food we create, and how much we need. In fact, it's easier to list the countries that can handle a 20% reduction in their food production, than to list the countries that can't.

The only saving grace of climate change is that it's probably slow enough that we have a chance of figuring out how to fix it before all those people starve.

No, I'll take a 5% or so chance of a mega-pandemic over the near certainty of a massive global famine.

Please note that I'm well aware that the chance of a pandemic in the next 50 years approaches 100% - but that kind of pandemic would still only kill in the low single digit percentages. A mega-pandemic, like Spanish Flu, is far less likely. It's not even clear that the Spanish Flu, if it returned, would kill over 10% of the world population.

But yeah, those two risks stack up with nuclear war as the Big Three risks over the next 50 years.


Jim Driscoll

Oh, and I'd disagree with pparkman that climate fluctuations have killed fewer people, historically, than pandemics.

For reference, just look at the history of, say, China. Most major upheavals in that country started with famine. And that led to wars. And those wars depopulated the countryside. A close examination of European history before 1800 yields similar insights. (Pop quiz: Why did all those Germans attack Rome 2000 years ago?)

For an example of what happens from climate change that's more recent, check out most of sub-Saharan Africa - which, for reference, gets less sub-Saharan, and more mid-Saharan every day. Name the countries along the south border of that region, and it sounds like a Band-Aid charity concert. Or a UN commission on war atrocities.


This should not be a conversation of either/or. These two realities, climate change and pandemics, are inextricably intertwined. VP Gore, unfortunately only used about 2 minutes of his documentary to highlight the effects of climate change on the transmission of new and re-emerging infectious disease and the expansion of disease vectors. Nor do the pandemic flu experts highlight that the effects of climate change will most likely increase the likelihood AND impact of a pandemic. As the comments point out above, famine, mass migration to urban centers, increased power and frequency of major weather events set the stage perfectly for a pandemic. The discussion should not be focused on betting on which may happen first or which will have a more devastating impact; we should be highlighting the overlaps in the crisis and mitigate those "activities" which contribute to both.


pandemic stash in the basement- is that paranoid?!


"Be Prepared" is a good motto and we would do well to apply it to both scenarios. Of course global warming is more than a scenario in that it is here now. It would be just like mother nature to hit us with a few major weather events and throw in a pandemic for good measure.


The University of Pittsburgh is working on a system to track over the counter medications to predict where outbreaks are beginning. They track the types of products sold and how many customers are buying. The interesting part is how many companies are taking part in sending data into the system. Hard sales figures will beat out blogging any day.


good observations on the deadliness of global warming as compared to global pandemics. When I saw Steve's glib statement that climate changes don't kill people, i had the same reaction.

on the other hand, an Internet crawler that might check a pandemic would have no effect on global warming. I doubt that any of the people saying how global warming kills are saying that an Internet tool can stop global warming.

so Steve's intro analogy may be a bit flawed, but the crawler itself is still very exciting.


A pandemic will probably stop the increase in global warming (if that isn't too late already). This earth is vastly overpopulated and a pandemic is the only way to 'cure' that, apart from making no more babies. That won't happen since people are religious and procreate like bunnies. The difference is that rabbits stop breeding when there is a surplus of rabbis or a shortage of food. Not humans.

So bring on the pandemic! Yes, I might die myself, and if not, surely some of my loved ones will, but it's all for the greater good of humanity.

BTW I really mean this, I don't have kids, and no food stash in the basement.


Until Larry works something out, there is always Promed:


I think it's just a matter of simple logic. Climate has a bigger effect on any disease or virus. But i'm simple man. There may be a virus out there that can change the weather.....hmmm...maybe I should ask Art Bell....


A little bit of thread creep:
I will accept Jim Driscoll's correction if we stipulate that famines are caused by climate change. And I don't know Chinese history so I can't refute his example. However, the vast majority of recent famines have been caused by politics and economics more than climate. In the 20th century at least, people have been starved by their own governments by the millions. And even in those drought stricken countries in Africa - unwillingness to change cultivation practices, economic barriers to using drought resistant strains of seed, and, most of all, massive corruption have exacerbated the hunger far beyond what the weather caused.
Clearly, we need to get our food distribution act together, disease or no. But to be selfish, in the US where we waste food by the garbage dumpfuls, Dr Levitt and I are at greater risk from super-viruses.


Is Larry Brilliant aptronymic?


To be sure, we Americans waste a great amount of food. It'd be interesting to see if a famine would get us to stop sending millions of tons of food to the landfills. Perhaps that would be the one upside to an American famine, climate-induced or otherwise.

Alfred J. Fortin

Larry wrote an article on his efforts in the Forbes Magazine Anniversary issue just out. I talk to it my post at the World Health Care Blog.


A private system used by health and development professionals is also tackling this issue. A recent issue of Business 2.0 (Jan./Feb. 2007) ran an article, "Go Green, Get Rich", on how entrepeneurs are tackling nine environmental/development issues of the 21st Century. Problem #7 is epidemics; profiled as a modern solution to the problem was Vovixa, a private company that has designed an epidemic-tracking system tailored to the needs of LDCs. Health care workers can access the Vovixa network by web, phone, or other means, informing an online database of emerging infectious diseases and other health threats in their area. Diseases can then be tracked, trends analyzed, and appropriate medical supplies shipped to needed areas in a timely and efficient manner.

(Vovixa link: (link to original article: