How a Pandemic Happens: We Knew This Was Coming

Mike Davis on the Inevitability of Catastrophe

“So it’s really as bad as that,” said Miranda.
“It’s as bad as anything can be,” said Adam, “all the theaters and nearly all the shops and restaurants are closed, and the streets have been full of funerals all day and ambulances all night.”
–Pale Horse, Pale Rider

In this celebrated short novel written 20 years after the event, Katherine Ann Porter recorded her own near-death experience during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918–19. She spent nine days in the hallway of an overwhelmed Denver hospital, burning with fever, drifting in and out of hallucinations. Her lover, a young lieutenant awaiting orders to leave for France, lay elsewhere, dying. Shivering on her steel gurney and given up as hopeless by her doctor, Miranda/Ann sees phantoms, soldiers, and executioners hovering over an “old man in filthy clothes”:

The road to death is a long march beset with all evils and the heart fails little by little at each new terror, the bones rebel at each step, the mind sets up its own bitter resistance and to what end? The barriers sink one by one, and no covering of the eyes shuts out the landscape of disaster, nor the sight of crimes committed there.

In 1918–19, despite enormous recent advances built upon the fundamental discoveries of Koch and Pasteur a generation earlier, medical science was almost as helpless in the face of the pandemic as had been the physicians, alchemists and astrologers called upon to cure the Great Plague of 1665–66 in London. If the US Public Health Service wagered everything on the distribution of an ultimately worthless vaccine, the remedy in Daniel Defoe’s time was to slaughter all the cats in the city—a great windfall for infected rats. In both eras medicine chased phantoms: the plague bacillus was finally identified by Alexandra Yersin in 1894 while a full characterization of the 1918 virus waited until 2000 when an expedition brought back the frozen lungs of an original victim from the Arctic.

Today’s “landscape of disaster” is eerily similar to 1665 and 1918: urban populations locked inside their apartments, the flight of the rich to their country homes, the cancellation of public events and schools, desperate trips to the markets that often end with infection; society’s reliance upon hero nurses, the lack of beds in hospitals and pesthouses, the mad search for masks, and the widespread suspicion that alien powers are at work (Jews, a passing comet, German saboteurs, the Chinese).

“Fast vaccines,” a universal flu shot, high-speed mask production—bells should have rang out, but they didn’t.

But this time around there was little mystery about the identity of the microbe—SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced almost overnight in January—or the steps necessary to fight it. Since the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983 and the recognition that it had jumped from apes to humans, science has been on high alert against the appearance of deadly new diseases with pandemic potential that have crossed over from wild fauna. This new age of plagues, like previous pandemic epochs, is directly the result of economic globalization.

The Black Death, for instance, was the inadvertent consequence of the Mongol conquest of inner Eurasia, which allowed Chinese rodents to hitchhike along the trade routes from northern China to Central Europe and the Mediterranean. Today, as was the case when I wrote Monster fifteen years ago, multinational capital has been the driver of disease evolution through the burning or logging out of tropical forests, the proliferation of factory farming, the explosive growth of slums and concomitantly of “informal employment,” and the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to find profit in mass producing lifeline antivirals, new-generation antibiotics, and universal vaccines.

Forest destruction, whether by multinationals or desperate subsistence farmers, eliminates the barrier between human populations and the reclusive wild viruses endemic to birds, bats, and mammals. Factory farms and giant feedlots act as huge incubators of novel viruses while appalling sanitary conditions in slums produce populations that are both densely packed and immune compromised. The inability of global capitalism to create jobs in the so-called “developing world” means that a billion or more subsistence workers (the “informal proletariat”) lack an employer link to healthcare or the income to purchase treatment from the private sector, leaving them dependent upon collapsing public hospitals systems, if they even exist.

Permanent bio-protection against new plagues, accordingly, would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these “structures of disease emergence” through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that no large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake. A cadre of brilliant medical researchers, public health doctors, and informed journalists—Paul Farmer, Richard Horton, Laurie Garrett, Rob Wallace, and many others—have been trying to teach us for years about these systemic connections. As Wallace emphasized a few years ago, “the agroe-conomic impacts of global neoliberalism are foundational, felt across biocultural organization, down so far as the virion and molecule.”

A much larger chorus of voices, many shouting from the highest roof tops of government, have warned that a catastrophe such as the one that we are now living through loomed on the horizon and perhaps was imminent. The successive debuts of avian flu (1997, 2003–present), SARS (2003), Swine flu (2009), MERS (2012), and Zika virus (2015), as well as the recent Ebola epidemics in the Congo and West Africa, produced surges of research and attracted smart biotech start-ups who tried, often unsuccessfully, to find venture capital to back the development of promising new antivirals and vaccines. The specter of avian flu had led to the adoption of an official US national strategy and the emergence of a new genre of scientific literature: report after report warning of a coming pandemic and the need to prepare to meet it.

But preparedness was a stop-and-go cycle and politicians often backtracked from their own policies. In 1998, for instance, the Clinton administration created a National Pharmaceutical Stockpile under CDC management expressly to deal with the pandemic threat. In 2003 the Bush administration changed the name to the National Strategic Stockpile and handed control over to Homeland Security (DHS) and HHS. Its inventory then included 105 million N-95 respirators, 100 million of which were distributed by the Obama administration during the swine flu (H1N1) emergency in 2009. The Obama administration, however, failed to replenish the mask stockpile, arguing that a better and cheaper solution was to help the private sector develop the production capacity (see below) to meet surging demand in a pandemic crisis. Trump’s DHS and HHS officials, many of whom were political appointees with little experience in public health administration or even medical science, were content to leave the stockpile depleted while neglecting the proposed investments in private-sector alternatives.

“Those of us in the Ebola response knew we got lucky, not only because the pathogen wasn’t airborne, but because the outbreak happened where it did in the world. We knew that we probably wouldn’t get lucky again.”

Trump also scrapped the hard-earned wisdom of those who had fought previous major outbreaks. Following the terrifying Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, field reports and analyses from a number of different US agencies were synthesized in a memorandum by NSA analyst Christopher Kirchhoff and sent to Susan Rice, Obama’s National Security Advisor. After the combined forces of the WHO and various medical non-profits failed to contain the initial outbreak, the CDC, USAID, and other US agencies attempted to fill the gap but their own lack of coordination only produced more chaos. Finally, considering the outbreak a tier-one national security emergency comparable to the civil war in Syria, President Obama established a White House Ebola Task Force and mobilized the Pentagon who, in inimitable fashion, conceptualized their mission as the equivalent to fighting terrorists. In the end 2800 troops were sent to Liberia to build laboratories, hospitals and barracks for the hundreds of US Public Health Service’s doctors and lab workers.

The sobering lesson learned from this experience, Kirchhoff concluded, was that “gaps in preparedness and capacity surfaced in every major agency tasked with health and security in the US.” (He later told an interviewer that “Those of us in the Ebola response knew we got lucky, not only because the pathogen wasn’t airborne, but because the outbreak happened where it did in the world. We knew that we probably wouldn’t get lucky again.”) Kirchhoff made a case for a whole spectrum of reforms, but stressed that only “a single person accountable to the President for response efforts, working within the NSC framework, is a model that works in extremis cases.” Rice and Obama agreed and the Directorate of Global Health Security and Biodefense was created inside the National Security Council with the specific responsibility of monitoring and advising the executive branch about the pandemic threats. Its first “czar” was Beth Cameron, a State Department veteran who reported directly to Rice.

The Directorate survived the change of regimes, but in 2018 when John Bolton became Trump’s third National Security Advisor he told his leader that there was no need for a separate pandemic group and that it was more efficient to fold its work into a single NSC center for weapons of mass destruction and biowarfare. He started by purging a counterpart pandemic planning group in DHS, then in a night of long knives, closed the NSC directorate and fired most of its staff, starting with its head, Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer. Bolton’s ruthless destruction of the two directorates evoked a storm of protest from medical experts and former Bush and Obama officials. The Center for Strategic and International Studies took up their case and convened a commission that included Julie Gerberding, the head of the CDC during the George W. Bush years, and Kelly Ayotte, a former Republican Senator from New Hampshire. Just weeks before the outbreak they published a report “sounding the alarm that the US government is caught in a cycle of crisis and complacency” in regard to preparing for a pandemic. The first step, they urged, was restoring expert health leadership on the NSC.

At almost the same time a report from the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) warned that existing vaccine production technologies were out of date and incapable of meeting needs during a pandemic. With incredible prescience they forecast that a pandemic could incapacitate a large portion of the workforce, require the hospitalization of as many as 4.3 million people, and kill half a million. Pondering the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to modernize vaccine development, they offered a compelling explanation that any radical economist would likely agree with:

There is a key misalignment between the social and private returns from medical research and development and capital investment in pandemic vaccines. R&D and investment costs are only recouped by sales when the pandemic risk occurs. Part of the value of vaccines that can mitigate future pandemic risks, however, is their insurance value today that provides protection against possible damage. This insurance value accrues even if the pandemic does not occur in the future, and it implies that the social value of faster production and better vaccines is much larger than its private return to developers. This divergence leads to an under-provision in vaccine innovation because it does not get rewarded for its insurance value. Second, pandemics represent a risk with a small probability of occurring but with large and highly correlated losses across the population. The rarity of influenza pandemics and the fact that the last serious one in this country occurred a hundred years ago may lead consumers and insurers to underestimate the probability and potential impact of a future influenza pandemic. Moreover the risk cannot be effectively pooled because everyone is at risk concurrently.

This analysis, of course applies with equal force to the reluctance of Big Pharma to develop new antibiotics and antivirals, as well as to the insurance industry’s refusal to provide pandemic insurance.

But in the blizzard of warnings and dire predictions in the two years before the pandemic, there were also some rays of sunshine. Thus at the beginning of 2018, lead researchers at the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institutes of Health heralded a revolution in vaccine design based on recent advances in next generation sequencing, rapid monoclonal antibody recognition, the application of AI to biological design, and atomic-scale protein engineering. But making these “fast vaccines,” the researchers explained, would require a new scale of investment and international collaboration, plus an expanded network of observatories in areas of high biodiversity where animal-human transmission is most likely. The following year researchers from the Center announced that the holy grail was in sight: “as a result of these advances, high-level, broad, and durable immunity against the large universe of influenza viruses may now be within reach.”

Meanwhile Halyard Health, a firm commissioned by the Obama administration three years earlier to update the technology of N-95 mask manufacture, had succeeded by fall 2018 in building a prototype machine that could produce 1.5 million masks per day, ten-times the current industry maximum. This would meet the surge demand for masks in a pandemic as correctly foreseen and calculated by Obama’s HHS.

“Fast vaccines,” a universal flu shot, high-speed mask production—bells should have rang out, but they didn’t. The mask technology bore the fatal stamp of an Obama program—all of which Trump had vowed to drive a silver stake through—and the other breakthroughs involved the kind of urgent science-driven investments that most Republicans frowned upon in the same way as they derided clean energy and universal healthcare. In any event, the Administration was preoccupied with more urgent health-related issues such as junking Obamacare and kicking more than one million people off food stamps. The CDC also came under the knife and its global health section “was so drastically cut in 2018 that much of its staff was laid off and the number of countries it was working in was reduced from 49 to merely 10.” A parallel attempt to eliminate the $252 million that Obama had committed to rebuilding health systems in three Ebola-ravaged countries was ultimately blocked by Congress.

And just three months before the Wuhan outbreak, it axed funding for USAID’s Emerging Pandemic Threats PREDICT program which had been established after the avian flu scare in 2005. A highly-lauded pet project of both the Bush and Obama administrations, PREDICT was both a pioneer viral early warning system and an aid program training local medical professionals to recognize novel infections and monitor zoonoses (animal outbreaks) that might be transmitted to humans. Its ultimate goal was the preemption of future pandemics through identification and surveillance of dangerous viruses. According to Science, PREDICT over the years had “discovered more than 1000 viruses from viral families that contain zoonoses, including viruses involved in recent outbreaks, and others of ongoing public health concern.” This total included 160 potentially dangerous coronaviruses identified in bats and other animals. (The total size of the global reservoir of animal viruses with the potential to become human infections is vastly greater. The Global Virome Project, a major international collaboration, estimates that there are 1.6 million unknown viruses circulating in wild animals, half of which have zoonotic potential.)


the monster enters

The Monster Enters by Mike Davis is available from OR Books.

Mike Davis
Mike Davis
Mike Davis, author of The Monster Enters, also wrote City of Quartz, Buda’s Wagon, Ecology of Fear, Planet of Slums and (with Jon Wiener) Set the Night on Fire. He is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award. He lives in San Diego.

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