Think this coronavirus crisis is bad? The next could be worse — if we don’t act now
The 2003 SARS, 2009 Avian Flu, and 2012 MERS epidemics should have provided us ample warning that an even more dangerous global pandemic loomed on the horizon. Although many leading experts then called for building much more robust national and global infrastructures in preparation for this eventuality, not nearly enough was done. Instead, populations in the United States and around the world came to see governance as a reality-television spectacle rather than as our most essential mechanism for ensuring our safety and security.
As the coronavirus pandemic, today grows ever-more dangerous, we must not only rise to meet this crisis but also step up our efforts to prepare for even more dangerous pathogens — either naturally emerging or synthetically engineered — that are very likely to follow.
The Wuhan coronavirus, technically named SARS-COV-2 (which causes the COVID-19 disease), appears to hit a sweet spot in the danger it poses. It is benign enough, with such a long, asymptomatic incubation period, that it can spread widely by not killing too many of its hosts. It is also deadly enough to potentially cause mass devastation. Even if the most recent World Health Organization estimate of a 3.4 percent fatality rate proves overstated once better testing increases the tally of those already infected, a fatality rate of 1 percent could prove devastating if the rate of contagion continues to climb at anything like its current rate.
Even though it is still too early to tell just how significant this crisis will become, it’s already clear that this is another moment when American leadership is needed to safeguard American and global well-being. If ever there was a time for President Trump and his administration to step forward and lead in a way that brings America and the world together to face a monumental threat to our way of life, this is it. If the administration continues with its playbook to date, however, the result will be devastating, dangerous and possibly deadly chaos.
But while we must respond aggressively to the crisis at hand, we must now also do far more to prepare for future crises that are almost certainly coming.
The combination of rapid population growth, global warming, mass urbanization, closer human contact with wild animals, and decentralized technological capacity significantly increases the likelihood we will face many new, deadly pathogens in the future. Some of these will be more naturally occurring and others could very well be the result of applied synthetic biology.
We still don’t know the exact origin of the Wuhan coronavirus, and multiple credible possibilities have been proposed. Whatever the case, the growing danger of both naturally emerging and synthetic pathogens is clear.
In 2016, then U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned in his testimony to Congress that synthetic biology tools could open the door to “potentially harmful biological agents,” with “far-reaching economic and national security implications.” The following year, a small university laboratory in Canada used synthetic biology tools to create a deadly strain of horsepox, a relative of smallpox, for less than $100,000. The same process could today be carried out for a fraction of that cost.
But if the threat of these types of deadly pathogens will grow with time, so will our ability to use the tools of the genetics revolution to fight back. The coronavirus was sequenced within weeks of its manifestation, and progress already is being made toward a potential vaccine, even though it would not be ready for widespread use for at least a year. The rapid testing kits now being disseminated widely around the world are a miracle of modern science, even if they are still being deployed far slower than needed.
Beyond the technologies being deployed today, we can imagine a future world where mass sensors make it possible to catch and contain deadly pathogens like these at their origin. Scientists already are exploring the possibility of editing the genomes either of existing humans or of pre-implanted embryos or egg and sperm precursor cells to confer far greater resistance to these and other viruses. Technologies like these provide tremendous opportunities but also come with very real potential dangers we must be grappling with now.
Building the protective infrastructure we will need to safeguard our future will require both a bottom-up and a top-down approach. To participate in this essential process of determining our future and demanding accountability of our elected and government officials, the general public must develop a far greater understanding of the underlying science and the ethical issues it raises. This knowledge must then underpin inclusive national and global dialogues about the best way forward. Governments and international institutions must use this moment of heightened attention to begin building and funding the far more robust public health and regulatory infrastructures we will need to face the future dangers inevitably heading our way.
As terrible as the coronavirus crisis is likely to be, we will get through it. As we do, we must massively step up our efforts to prepare for what is next.
Jamie Metzl is a technology futurist, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a member of the World Health Organization’s international advisory committee on human genome editing. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” (2019), to be republished in paperback on April 7. He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @jamiemetzl.