Nathan Wolfe, the founder of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative, recently said that a deadly pandemic on the scale of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic is highly likely to occur this century.
During an interview with Time, the virologist discussed what would occur if a deadly new virus were to jump from animals to humans. He spoke about the differences between a fast spreading virus and a slow moving pandemic, Time
"Some things can spread very rapidly, like H1N1, which caused the so-called 'swine flu' pandemic of 2009," Wolf said, according to Time
. "Other things move much more slowly, like HIV. Most people do not realize that the majority of the transmission of HIV occurs within the first couple of weeks after an individual has been infected: the virus replicates very extensively, with a high density of particles appearing in the blood and body fluids, but then the immune system controls it and it disappears until you get AIDS. Symptoms appear only years later. These could be very frightening kinds of outbreaks."
Wolfe said that the world is not well prepared for such a pandemic, pointing out that that the H1N1 swine flu pandemic killed more than 100,000 people. If the mortality rate was slightly higher during the pandemic, millions of people could have perished.
When asked if a major pandemic like the 1918 Spanish flu could occur in the next century, Wolfe said it was very likely.
"Highly likely, although it would look very different," Wolfe said, according to Time
. "A number of the over 40 million estimated deaths caused by Spanish flu were associated with secondary microbial infections, which we are now in a better position to treat. But the Spanish flu virus had a mortality rate of 10 to 20 percent including deaths from subsequent bacterial infections - though estimates are tricky. Something like bird flu, in comparison, kills about 30 to 40 percent, even by conservative estimates, of those infected."
Wolfe said that the keys to dealing with such a pandemic include better cooperation between governments and agencies to turn information into appropriate action, addressing poverty in vulnerable parts of the world and casting a very wide surveillance net to find new viruses before they make it to airplanes, sexual networks and blood banks.