The Current

COVID-19 won't be our worst pandemic, says epidemiologist who helped end smallpox

An American epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox says the COVID-19 pandemic is not “the big one,” nor the last one, that humanity needs to worry about.

Dr. Larry Brilliant says world needs to come together to prevent future health crises

Health-care workers are seen in PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic. An epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox from India in the 1970s says the world has become reactive to diseases, and needs to take more preventative measures to health crises. (Massimo Pinca/Reuters)

Story Transcript

An American epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox says the COVID-19 pandemic is not "the big one," nor the last one, that humanity needs to worry about.

"If we had … a respiratory transmitted disease, and if it had the death rate of smallpox and the speed of transmission of measles, that, I think, would be ... my greatest fear," Dr. Larry Brilliant told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"The race between the [COVID-19] virus and the vaccines, I think, is a tie, which is pretty good given the head start we gave the virus. I think 'the big one' is the one that would win that race." 

Brilliant was part of a World Health Organization team that helped put an end to smallpox in India in the 1970s. Through widespread vaccination programs, education about the disease, and surveillance of cases, WHO eventually eradicated smallpox globally in 1980.

Today, Brilliant is the founder and CEO of Pandefense Advisory, which helps governments, businesses and non-profits respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics. 

As vaccines start to roll out around the world and humanity looks to the post-pandemic future, Brilliant warns that we must learn from the COVID-19 crisis.

We've gotten [comfortable] in our ability to react to outbreaks, and not prevent them. And I think we've let down our guard.- Dr. Larry Brilliant

He said medical developments over the last 100 years have improved our ability to treat diseases, but they've also allowed us to become complacent.

"We've gotten [comfortable] in our ability to react to outbreaks, and not prevent them. And I think we've let down our guard," Brilliant said.

"We need to be really careful that we devote all the attention we can to stopping this [pandemic] now, worldwide, and then preventing the next one."

Part of that will come down to the world's ability to work together.

Uniting a divided world

After the devastation of the Second World War, Brilliant explained, organizations like the United Nations Security Council and the World Health Organization were developed to stave off other disasters that could lead to loss of human life.

"We gave up a little bit of our sovereignty, each of us, as people and as governments, to bring us together. And that's what allowed us to eradicate smallpox," he said. 

But things are different now, he said. 

"And today, I'm afraid we don't face those forces that bring us together; I'm afraid we face centrifugal forces that tear us apart."

Dr. Larry Brilliant is the founder and CEO of Pandefense Advisory, which helps governments, businesses and non-profits respond to COVID-19 and future pandemics. (Pandefense Advisory)

Still, Brilliant remains hopeful.

He said he believes the pandemic could be that moment of "at-oneness" the world needs to come together again, and to refresh those organizations that unified people during crises of the past.

He added that he hopes the world will vow to never let a disease like COVID-19 happen again.

"And we could do that," Brilliant said.

"I think it was Carl Sagan who said it was only the imminent arrival of an alien species in a spaceship that had better weapons than us that would bring us together," he said.  

"Well, I nominate COVID for that title."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Julie Crysler.

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