Over the last several weeks we have been engaged in debate with molecular geneticists over H7N9 and whether the pathogen could represent "the next Big One"... i.e. the next influenza pandemic.
We pointed out that thanks to ever-advancing diagnostic technology, we as a society are increasingly at risk of scaring ourselves because we are actually able to "see" threats and give them a name more quickly. This is a common phenomenon in novel warning systems, where a period of adjustment is needed before the operator no longer jumps at each and every blip on the radar.
We pointed out that highly successful and respected experts in genetics and select agent research have often made grand claims of threat associated with such pathogens as Ebola and SARS and H5N1. Words such as "Super Pandemic" were quoted in the media in the late 1990s, for instance, when discussing Ebola. However we have not seen the hyperbole become real.
We pointed out there remains a challenge to the operational biosurveillance triage, where one asks the uncomfortable question of how you "rack and stack", or prioritize, infectious agents to monitor. Whether these geneticists believed H7N9 or H5N1 should take priority? Or H3N2 variant (which is inside the United States)? Or perhaps canine influenza (H3N8)? We were met with silence.
We provided a concluding point that there remains lack of confidence (and proof) that we are able to predict, based on genetic sequences, which influenza virus will become the harbinder of the next pandemic. This, of course, caused discomfort in the discourse.
And now H7N9 has reportedly cooled off, and the world has refocused on novel coronavirus as it continues to slowly leak into the international air traffic grid. About a month ago, we pointed out here on Operational Biosurveillance the signature patterns for novel coronavirus remained more concerning than H7N9. We are aware of one pharmaceutical company who used that information to prioritize their resources towards analysis of the novel coronavirus genome and production of a vaccine.
Herein lies a point: that should we achieve a degree of fidelity in operational forecasting, warning, and tactical assessments, then the organization capable of acting on that information is strategically positioned ahead of a potential crisis. And strategically positioned ahead of the market. This could mean rapid development of a diagnostic kit, vaccine, or other countermeasure.
Herein lies another point: that the global markets require a balanced perspective when attempting to understand these uncertain, emerging infectious disease crises. That the yammer of pundits is not always correct in their asserted assessments of these situations. That discovery of a novel pathogen (thanks to novel technology) does not equate to The Next Big One. And that the world only knows what is recognized by the major media outlets- that a virtual iceberg of daily information regarding deadly infectious disease resides buried in other languages and online sources.
And lastly, that a deep breath is needed with that grain of salt when reading the continuous flow of hyperbole.