Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
In the not-so-distant future, a highly infectious virus has killed a large portion of the world’s population. The death toll is unclear, but it’s in the tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions. Those still alive — lucky enough not to contract a deadly strain of H7N9 influenza — will reflect on what brought them here.
Some might think about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. They had, after all, just survived a plague of biblical proportions. With the benefit of direct experience, they might add a fifth: fiscal conservatism.
It sounds like overdramatic science fiction, but it shouldn’t. We live in an era with the constant threat of doom looming over us climate change, terrorism, nuclear war. But pandemic will likely get us first.
Even though it’s the most plausible of apocalypses, we’re not powerless to prevent it. We have the scientific knowledge, and the international aid capabilities, to stop dangerous outbreaks of highly infectious diseases well before they become global pandemics. The only thing standing in the way is funding.
Shortsighted cuts to science research and foreign aid tip the scales in pathogens’ favor. Congress and the Trump administration must increase funding for science research and readiness. If they continue to ignore this microscopic threat, they could be responsible for the deaths of millions.
The next pandemic would not be the first to wreak havoc on global health. The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa claimed around 11,325 lives. That’s dwarfed by the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, which took upward of 151,700 to 575,400. 1,232,346 people have been diagnosed with AIDS since the epidemic’s inception in the early ’80s. Easily topping that, the catastrophic 1918 Spanish flu pandemic infected a third of the Earth’s population and killed about 50 million people.
We could be on the verge of a similar outbreak. The world’s increasing population density means humanity is more vulnerable than ever to highly infectious diseases. Such a risk demands decisive action to fund research and preparedness. Instead, a perfect storm of budget cuts and negligence has put us on course for a pandemic.
Global health experts agree that the United States isn’t prepared to handle a worldwide outbreak of a highly infectious virus, and the Trump administration’s attitude toward research and aid isn’t helping matters. The administration has proposed cutting the state department’s funding by more 25 percent, which could severely compromise its ability to provide crucial aid early on in an outbreak.
The same budget proposal roughly maintains 2017 levels of funding for the National Institutes of Health. Increased NIH funding would spur more research into viruses that could cause the next pandemic. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is set to exhaust the funding allowing it to help developing nations improve their ability to detect and respond to epidemics. Without oversight, outbreaks in developing nations could spread nearly unchecked.
To put it succinctly, the United States is scaling back efforts to prevent a pandemic. We’re asking for a fight we won’t win.
There are already candidates for the next pandemic virus. H7N9 currently doesn’t spread easily between humans, but it has killed up to 39 percent of those infected. An outbreak of a more transmissible but similarly deadly mutation would be devastating, and that mutation could happen at any time. Acting now would minimize the damage. Policy makers need to treat that day as an inevitability — not science fiction.
Nate Rogers is a freshman physics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.