Initially Published 23 April, 2018
A deadly epidemic is a trope that has been used again and again in both movies and books. The frightening aspect is that it could really happen and there is very little that can be done to stop it. Think about the almost panic during the H1N1 Swine Flu epidemic of 2009 and that strain of Swine Flu killed roughly 280,000 people worldwide and infected 1 in 5 people for a death rate of 0.02%. That was a mild pandemic. Imagine for a moment that the Ebola virus that has been affecting Guinea and the MERS virus in the Middle East suddenly became much more easily transmitted.
Ebola kills up to 90% of those infected. Luckily it is not easily transmitted because it is a blood infection and contact with an infected person is required. To make matter worse in the case of Ebola, there is no vaccine. Vaccines are being developed but none have been proven effective. If Ebola were to mutate or be engineered such that it could spread through airborne transmission that is a recipe for worldwide disaster given the mobility of people today.
MERS is a new disease that was first reported in 2012 in Saudi Arabia. It is a respiratory disease that kills approximately 30% of the people that contract it. Nobody really knows how MERS is transmitted although the limited spread of the disease so far seems to suggest that it also requires fluid contact with an exposed person.
These two diseases are not the only diseases to be worried about. The list (with death rates) is fairly extensive and includes:
- Smallpox – 30%
- MERS – 30%
- Ebola – up to 90%
- Typhoid Fever – up to 30%
- Cholera – up to 5%
- Anthrax – cutaneous 20% and gastrointestinal 25%-60%
- Yellow Fever – normal 5%-10% and toxic phase patients up to 50%
- Rabies – 80%
- Bird Flu (H5N1) – roughly 30%
- Swine Flu (HN1) – roughly 2%-5% although it kills young, healthy people more than the old or immunocompromised like the seasonal flu
All have very high death rates among the infected and several were previously common but thought to have been eradicated. Smallpox, Typhoid Fever, Yellow Fever, and Cholera have been largely eradicated and many people are no longer vaccinated against them so a large portion of the population is vulnerable to these diseases if a more virulent strain were to reappear.
The danger of a naturally occurring epidemic is essentially impossible to predict. We cannot know when or even if a virulent, deadly new disease will appear or when an existing disease will make the leap to being capable of transmission to human hosts or even worse be capable of airborne transmission. This one is essentially a head scratcher and we roll the dice every day that such a disease will not appear and that if it does the disease agent will be identified quickly and a vaccine produced fast enough and in sufficient quantities to protect most people.
The scariest thing about disease is that some government or organization will weaponize a disease that kills most people and release it. For their purposes they would preferably release a disease with an extremely high death rate such as a naturally occurring disease like Ebola or Rabies or make a less deadly disease such as flu or smallpox more virulent and deadly. We know this can be done because both the Russians and Americans did this during the Cold War and presumably the Chinese did too.
There are some issues with the deliberate release of an engineered disease. The biggest is that once released a disease does not care who it infects so you need a vaccine for your own people before it is released. The second is that actually developing and weaponizing a disease take a lot of knowledge, expertise, and money. That outs he release of such an engineered disease only within reach of a nation-state. The costs of weaponizing a disease are dropping though so it is conceivable that a disease could be engineered in the future by a terrorist group or even an individual that hates the world. I actually think that radical environmentalists of the Gaia stripe are more likely to develop and release such a disease because it will erase the human stain is the most likely probability for such an engineered disease to appear. Only people that want to see humanity eliminated would actually do such a thing.
I actually think that the deliberate release of a deadly disease is a rather slim probability because diseases are so unpredictable. The appearance of a natural disease that would kill millions is possible but the likelihood is impossible to predict. Given those caveats, what do I see the likelihood of an epidemic disease being? Here are my cloudy crystal ball predictions.
- Short-term-the next 5 years – roughly 5% chance of a virulent disease outbreak occurring
- Medium-term-in 5-15 years – roughly 5% chance of a collapse occurring because I just don’t think there are enough people full of hatred for mankind around yet
- Long-term-more than 15 years from now – roughly 15% chance of a collapse occurring. As technology advances the chances that some group could develop a disease and the vaccine for it increases and if a vaccine is available the possibility of its use goes up