In 2008, just months before the zenith of the global financial crisis, Oxford academics were discussing the possibility of human extinction at a conference on international catastrophic risks. Their conclusions were startling, with a subsequent report predicting our species faces a one in five chance of becoming extinct by 2100.
The idea that we are living in the Anthropocene – an epoch in which the human species is the single greatest factor shaping the planet’s climate and ecosystems – may be accurate, but it also expresses a certain hubris. This was reflected in the primary threats examined in the Oxford report, with nanotech weapons, nuclear war and a super-intelligent AI all viewed as more likely catalysts for our downfall than events beyond our control, such as an asteroid collision. The existence of homo sapiens may be fragile, but even in assessing what might bring about our demise, we have a tendency towards arrogance.
Yet when I spoke to Richard Horton, editor of the medical journal The Lancet, earlier this week, his view was that a future pathogen – one more deadly than Covid-19 – represents the greatest immediate threat to our species. “I think a pandemic threat is very, very likely […] to be the species-ending event for homo sapiens,” he told me. “In the long term, climate certainly, but in the short to medium term I’m afraid it’s a pandemic. This particular pandemic has ten times the fatality rate of influenza, but imagine if it was a hundred times?”
In any discussion of deadly viruses, the Spanish Flu of 1918 looms large in the popular imagination. The flu saw a quarter of the world’s population become infected over a period of 18 months, leading to 40 million deaths – at least twice the number of casualties which resulted from WW1.
Yet compared to the Black Death this death toll was relatively minor, with the events of five centuries earlier reducing Europe’s population by around a third. What both reveal, however – as with Covid-19 – is that global trade and movement can allow pathogens to spread in new ways and with unprecedented speed. When sailing ships were the fastest way to travel, this problem was less pressing – but in the age of the jet engine and container ship, we face an ever more dangerous threat.
This problem is discussed by Andreas Malm in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, in which he notes the potential existence of several hundred distinct coronaviruses among the Earth’s bat population which could be fatal to humans. So far this century, only three have breached the species barrier, the most recent of which is Covid-19. For Malm, continued deforestation combined with ever more extensive and intensive animal agriculture means further coronavirus pandemics are inevitable – and this is only one family of potentially lethal pathogens.
But even if pandemics do become ever more frequent, could a future outbreak really eradicate our species? While we know pathogens have driven other mammals to extinction in the past, this has generally only applied to isolated, island-dwelling species such as the Christmas Island rat. Humans, meanwhile, inhabit every continent and in ever greater numbers.
There are warnings of what could be to come, however. White-nose syndrome is crashing bat populations around the world, while chytridiomycosis, caused by the chytrid fungus, is doing something similar to a number of amphibian species. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in the seminal The Sixth Great Extinction, this is due to globalisation: the compression of space means our planet figuratively resembles the supercontinent of Pangea, where any pathogen can travel anywhere.
This is bad news for biodiversity, but it’s also bad news for us. While the extinction of homo sapiens as the result of a single pandemic may be unlikely, the same applies to other threats such as climate change. Critically, these threats should not be viewed in isolation from one another: a world of rising temperatures, and further deforestation, also means more pandemics. Threats should be viewed as additive rather than distinct.
Which is why, if nothing else, Covid-19 should be a wake-up call to a very credible threat. While some have criticised China for its handling of the virus, things would have been far worse had the pathogen emerged somewhere with relatively weak public health infrastructure and state capacity, such as India or much of sub-Saharan Africa.
What’s more, those celebrating the success of any single country in vaccinating its domestic population are missing an important point: achieving global herd immunity may require 12 billion doses of vaccine, worldwide, every year. This is before the possibility of mutations which will require further innovation – something which can be done with record speed using new mRNA technology, but which nonetheless represents a constantly evolving challenge.
As a result, several points should inform the political common sense going forward. First , we need a global floor when it comes to healthcare, which should be universal and free at the point of use. This may sound far-fetched, or naively utopian, but such a course of action benefits everyone, whether they are a Wall Street trader or a fisherman in south-east Asia. Vaccinating those in the Global South is in the interest of those in the Global North, and vice versa – and the same applies to healthcare.
Second, all states are going to need the capacity to address emerging outbreaks, whether of a coronavirus or another pathogen. As with universal healthcare, such capacity is in the rational self-interest of every country, rich or poor. This must resemble the approach of east Asia, which has come through the crisis relatively unscathed – meaning state-administered quarantine rather than self-isolation, and test and trace systems that look more like those of Vietnam than Britain. Something of such vital global interest can’t be left to the profit motive.
Finally, we are going to have to consume and use far fewer animal products. This is because ever more intensive animal agriculture, combined with the destruction of remaining wilderness, dramatically increases the possibility of zoonotic spillover. Crucially, this extends beyond just food – as a recent cull of 17 million mink in Denmark so brutally demonstrated.
In recent years, the politics of global cooperation has enjoyed dwindling support. The reason is simple: the same elites who have favoured it, particularly when it comes to trade, are also responsible for stagnant living standards and rising inequality domestically.
Yet Covid-19 confirms how state capacity abroad promotes safety at home. Frequently, this argument has been cynically deployed in the fight against international terrorism – but in the case of pathogens, it is based in fact. Nothing can cross borders more easily than a virus.
The events of the last twelve months need never be repeated, but ensuring this requires recognising how even globally, we are all each other’s keepers. Such a declaration isn’t born of utopian idealism. It’s the common sense pragmatism required to keep us safe in the 21st century.