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.
I first worried about the possibility of a double pandemic in March. Four months ago, it felt needlessly alarmist to fret about two rare events happening simultaneously. But since then, federal fecklessness and rushed reopenings have wasted the benefits of months of social distancing. About 60,000 new cases of COVID-19 are being confirmed every day, and death rates are rising. My worry from March feels less far-fetched. If America could underperform so badly against one rapidly spreading virus, how would it fare against two?
COVID-19 has made clear what happens when even powerful, wealthy countries are inadequately prepared for rare but ruinous events. Months into the pandemic, international alliances are strained, resources are diminished, and experts are demoralized. The longer this fiasco drags on, the more vulnerable America becomes to further disasters: inbound hurricanes, wildfires, and many other viruses that lie in wait.
Sars-cov-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is just one of many coronaviruses that exist in bats and other wild animals. Several strains of influenza with pandemic potential are lurking in pigs and poultry, and some have repeatedly infected farmers over the past decade. Wild mammals harbor an estimated 40,000 unknown viruses, a quarter of which could conceivably jump into humans. Changing climate and shrinking habitats have brought those viruses into closer contact with people and livestock, while crowded cities and air travel hasten their spread. “If another pandemic happens, it will follow the same path the first one took, carved out by the world we created,” says Jessica Metcalf, an infectious-disease ecologist at Princeton.
Certain traits increase pathogen’s pandemic potential. Those that spread via bodily fluids (Ebola), contaminated food and water (norovirus), or insect bites (Zika) are slower to spread around the world. By contrast, respiratory viruses like flu, which spread through coughs, sneezes, and exhalations, could conceivably travel fast enough to overlap with COVID-19.
Many countries are on high alert for such viruses, primed by their COVID-19 ordeal in the same way that East Asian countries were primed at the start of this pandemic by their previous run-ins with SARS and MERS. But waning global solidarity is a problem. “Our international laws are based on a bargain that countries will rapidly notify each other [about emerging diseases] and, in exchange, they’ll have protection against the economic impacts of sharing that info,” says Alexandra Phelan of Georgetown University, who works on legal and policy issues related to infectious diseases. That compact was violated during COVID-19, after China suppressed information about the outbreak and other countries quickly implemented travel bans. The U.S. is now on the receiving end of many such bans.