Online Originals: Most people are likely to experience extreme pandemic like COVID-19 in their lifetime, new study shows

Health

DURHAM, N.C. — COVID-19 is the first pandemic many people have experienced in their lifetime. But, statistically, these types of events aren’t rare. A study analyzed outbreaks of novel diseases over the past 400 years, estimating the intensity and yearly probability of them reoccurring.

A study, appearing in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” the week of Aug. 23, found the probability of a pandemic with similar impact to COVID-19 is about 2% in any year. This information shows that someone born at the beginning of the century would have about a 38% chance of experiencing one by now.

“The most important takeaway is that large pandemics like COVID-19 and the Spanish flu are relatively likely,” said William Pan, Ph.D., associate professor of global environmental health at Duke and one of the paper’s co-authors, in a University press release.

The study analyzed pathogens including plague, smallpox, cholera, typhus and novel influenza viruses. They found considerable variability in the rate at which pandemics have occurred in the past. The study also searched for patterns that led them to predict similar-scale outbreaks happening in the future.

In the case of the deadliest pandemic in modern history – the Spanish flu, which killed more than 30 million people between 1918 and 1920 – the probability of a pandemic of similar magnitude occurring ranged from 0.3% to 1.9% per year over the time period studied. Taken another way, those figures mean it is statistically likely that a pandemic of such extreme scale would occur within the next 400 years.

Study authors note outbreaks could occur more frequently with population growth, changes in food systems, environmental degradation and more frequent contact between humans and disease-harboring animals all may be significant factors.

“This points to the importance of early response to disease outbreaks and building capacity for pandemic surveillance at the local and global scales, as well as for setting a research agenda for understanding why large outbreaks are becoming more common,” Pan said.

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