Learning from disaster: An interview with Bryan Walsh

This isn’t our first pandemic, and it won’t be the last. So what can we learn from it for next time?
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From the cosmic assault of asteroids to the self-made threat of artificial intelligence to a supervolcano’s pyroclastic skies — there are cataclysmic events out there which threaten to sweep society away like sandcastles before the sea.

And Bryan Walsh, the author of End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World and “future correspondent” at Axios, has spent a lot of time thinking about them all.

Add to that list a much more immediate threat: pandemics. COVID-19, while serious and lethal, does not look like the species-killer that could potentially emerge. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take some apocalyptic lessons from it to help better ensure our future.

Freethink caught up with Walsh to talk humanity’s past and future, societal antibodies, and why we need an intelligence service for disease, all against a backdrop that is unfortunately apt.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Freethink: In our supervolcanoes video, you mentioned how awareness is our best weapon against existential threats. One of the things that makes a pandemic so much different than something like a supervolcano is we’ve lived through them. So why is it so hard for us to focus and plan?

Bryan Walsh: We’ve had them, and certainly I would say a lot more frequently than we have big supervolcanic eruptions. But … something on this scale is something that you might have to go back a century to really see.

Freethink: Almost exactly a century.

Bryan Walsh: It’s still what you would describe as a low-probability, high-consequence risk — and while it’s something we should be well prepared for, because disease is happening all the time, it doesn’t mean we have those things in place to the degree that we should. There have been a few close calls over the last just 20 years, including the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic that didn’t seem that bad or wasn’t uncontainable.

Most of the government plans around pandemic assume it’s going to be a flu virus, because that’s what we’ve had before. So that’s where you’re looking back to past experience. This is not the case with this virus.

Freethink: Is there anything people can do to keep this idea of a huge curve ball in mind when it comes to these massive threats?

Bryan Walsh: I think what that says is that you want to build systems that are as resilient and adaptable as possible. You don’t want to be too locked into one possible scenario if it doesn’t give you the ability to pivot. Because the thing we should know by now is that nature or our actions can throw all kinds of things that we haven’t prepared for or haven’t expected.

The idea that we don’t launch stockpiles of (PPE and medical supplies), the idea that we’re not thinking more strongly about how the supply chains could be disrupted, all those kinds of things. That’s not good. That explains why we are where we are. We might have to think about something similarly in regards to how we prepare for these days going forward, especially if something like this starts happening more often, which-

Freethink: It will.

Bryan Walsh: … could be the case. I mean certainly, we’ve seen more diseases emerging in recent years at a higher pace for a lot of reasons. It stands to reason that this will not be something we have to wait a hundred years for something similar to happen again. Especially if you start factoring in the possibility we’re going to start making more dangerous or infectious viruses, because there are people out there who are going to do that.

(This pandemic is) still what you would describe as a low-probability, high-consequence risk.

Bryan Walsh

Freethink: It does seem that not everywhere in the world was in this same unprepared spot. When you look at places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan … getting exposed to SARS, it almost gives these societies antibodies, right? They had an idea of what could happen and now they’re ready for it.

Bryan Walsh: I was there during (SARS in) Hong Kong. I hadn’t really put two and two together in terms of why that would be so important. And a big part of it is that it obviously left a big impression on governments there. You’re talking about a range of governments from soft autocratic like Singapore to fairly democratic like Taiwan. But it wasn’t just prepared in terms of the government and how they responded, or that you have strong infectious disease researchers there — it really convinced the public. When they hear reports about this, they take it very seriously, which means that they’re much faster to start using masks widely.

And also, I think being willing to support more extreme measures because you know what happens if you don’t do that. With Hong Kong especially, that was a real catastrophe. It was a mini version of what you’re seeing in a lot of places around the world, in terms of the economic impact, in terms of the impact on the healthcare workers and doctors and just ordinary people. No one wants to go back to that, and you really may have to go through that to make that work.

Ideally, with a central risk, you want to be prepared for things that you haven’t experienced. But at the end of the day, human beings do tend to learn from trial and error. If you have a trial and you have the error, you’re more likely to be ready to respond quickly now, which is unfortunate for the U.S. because that wasn’t the case (for us), and we’re seeing the effect of that.

Freethink: I feel there’s two major (kinds of) outbreaks that could potentially lead to pandemics. One of them is when a pathogen that we thought we knew acts in ways that we didn’t expect. And I think the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic is a great example. What lessons can we glean from that type of outbreak?

Bryan Walsh: That’s a great example of the way that the background environment in which a virus is functioning can be as important as the virus itself. What we’ve had (in Ebola outbreaks) before had been mostly isolated areas, villages, things like that. And suddenly, this pops up in West Africa, quite a way from its usual stomping grounds in Central Africa.

And that both means the people out there are not accustomed to it and are not looking out for it. And then, once it can get into a city … There are more cities in Africa than there were in the late seventies when Ebola first surfaced. They’re bigger. They’re more connected. All those things that accelerate something like Ebola — which is not the world’s most easily transmissible disease-

Freethink: Not at all.

Bryan Walsh: In part because it makes you so sick — was able to get into that environment. And then there are things that we only discovered throughout the course of the outbreak. It was not understood until well into it that a big vector of infection with Ebola was burial practices, which involve a lot of touching.

An epidemiologist or somebody who’s used to studying Ebola response may not put two and two together. You had to bring on cultural anthropologists, people who understand what’s happening, to realize that.

Freethink: The other major pandemic cause is a novel virus. What lessons do you think we can get when these brand new diseases come out?

Bryan Walsh: One thing that we should understand by now is where these things come from, which is they come from animals. They come from the interface between human beings and wild or domesticated animals, and we really need to do a better job of policing that boundary.

We believe it’s (SARS-CoV-2) from a wet market in Wuhan somewhere. Maybe a bat originally, goes to another animal. Quite honestly, those things should not exist any longer. We should know that’s just dangerous. That’s where SARS came from, the other ones as well, so that’s got to stop.

Maybe we should’ve studied coronaviruses even more closely. Maybe we should have thought about trying to create a vaccine.

Freethink: What do you think our takeaways might be after this COVID-19 outbreak? Do you think that this pandemic might be the one to finally get more nations to understand that they need to prepare?

Bryan Walsh: I would hope so. I find it very hard to go back to normalcy after this when it’s touched everyone and what we’ve all had to do… Around the entire world, it’s a shared experience. I think that’s going to change things. Hopefully, it just sticks around longer (in our minds).

It should be something similar to the way that 9/11 completely shifted what we think of as security in public areas and in airports.

Freethink: What’s so frustrating, at least for me, is this isn’t a comet or asteroid or a supervolcano or something. We know how to fight this. Countries are already proving it. We just have to be ready, right?

Bryan Walsh: That’s absolutely true. We just have to be ready. I mean, to a certain extent there’s… It’s impossible to go back and try to rerun this experiment with a different preparation, different response. But clearly, I think we will have learned a lot of lessons, in terms of why it matters to get on top of this fast.

It’s funny, whether you’re talking about pandemic simulations like with Event 201 or all the reports people have written over the years, thinking of a pandemic like “Yeah, okay, sure.” People write stories and do exercises about all kinds of threats, and it’s not reasonable to expect that we’re going to be 100% prepared with each and every one of them. But in this case, especially with the United States, you didn’t have to look at those.

All you had to look at was what was happening in China. And yet there was an unwillingness to really think that it was going to keep spreading, which in retrospect, is bonkers, honestly.

Understanding that you really need to keep a keen eye for these threats and respond to them with force immediately. That’ll be the best lesson to take after because you can’t stop it from happening. But in the same way that you try to get ahead of a preventive terrorist attack rather than deal with the aftermath, we should do the same thing around infectious disease.

Freethink: Basically everyone (infectious disease scientists) is saying, “There will be more. This is going to keep happening and it’s going to keep happening faster.” Climate change, human expansion, animal migration patterns.

Bryan Walsh: One of the things I worry about is, you’ve seen a lot of borders go back up in this response, and you really do need a global response for it to be effective.

Around the entire world, (the COVID-19 outbreak is) a shared experience. I think that’s going to change things.

Bryan Walsh

I personally am very concerned about the threat from engineered viruses. I think they could be far worse. I mean, at the end of the day, I’ll be honest, this particular virus it’s not going to stack up in the hall of fame next to the plague or even the 1918 flu, in terms of what it seems to actually do to people.

What I worry in the future is that you can create viruses in the lab that are much worse than anything nature can really whip up, both on purpose for terrorism or for preparation or for study, and it can get out.

Offense tends to always get ahead of defense with these technologies, so we should really emphasize “how do we do this?” We should have a universal flu vaccine. That should be an Apollo Project to ensure we take that off the board.

Freethink: Antibiotics came out, vaccines came out, and we think humanity’s won. Infectious disease was over. And then Marburg, Ebola, HIV/AIDS, SARS, the viruses were basically like, “I don’t think so. We’re not done yet.” Do you think that not letting off the gas in the future is going to be key to our long-term survival?

Bryan Walsh: I hope so, and I think both not letting off the gas but also treating this essentially at the same level as we treat catastrophic terrorism, in terms of having the equivalent of an epidemiological intelligence service that’s out there really looking for these threats and trying to snuff them out early.

Think of how much we could have saved, the trillions of dollars, the thousands — tens of thousands, maybe millions — of lives, if this thing had been fenced off early.

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