Every major global crisis has, in retrospect, its Cassandra — a doomsayer with the terrible curse of being the one person to see the mess coming — but who gets brushed aside by the larger public. For the 2008 real estate bubble, it was Meredith Whitney. For the Great Depression, it was Roger Babson. For 9/11, it was John O’Neill.
For the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, that person is an epidemiologist named Larry Brilliant. And Brilliant — with the aptonym to end all aptonyms — doesn’t just chair the board of a nonprofit called Ending Pandemics. He wasn’t just one of the people who helped figure out how to eradicate smallpox. He didn’t just help advise on the movie everyone you know has streamed in the last month, “Contagion.”
In 2006, he also gave a TED Talk titled, no exaggeration, “My Wish: Help Me Stop Pandemics.” Oh, and he followed the Grateful Dead for a summer. This man knows how to live, and possibly how to save us. Most recently, he was interviewed by Wired in a story that went up on Friday. In it, Brilliant explains:
The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn’t a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when. It’s really hard to get people to listen.
The entire thing is worth a read, especially because Brilliant — who, it bears repeating, totally saw this coming — also sees light at the end of the tunnel: the “epidemiologist gold ring,” which means herd immunity (from enough of us having caught COVID-19 and surviving it) and a proven vaccine. Also:
I hold out hope that we get an antiviral for Covid-19 that is curative, but in addition is prophylactic. It’s certainly unproven and it’s certainly controversial, and certainly a lot of people are not going to agree with me. But I offer as evidence two papers in 2005, one in Nature and one in Science. They both did mathematical modeling with influenza, to see whether saturation with just Tamiflu of an area around a case of influenza could stop the outbreak. And in both cases, it worked.
Here’s hoping we start learning from our mistakes, and listening to everything Brilliant has to say. Wired‘s story, and his TED talk, are both great places to start:
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