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Pandemic series: how likely is emergence of a deadly new airborne pathogen?

created by Anthony on Jun 15 2016
partnered with Center for the Study of Existential Risk and The Future of Life Institute

Airborne pathogens pose a high pandemic threat because they can so easily spread from person to person, making effective quarantine very difficult. A number of such pathogens in both viral (e.g. Flu, Smallpox, and of course the Common Cold) and bacterial (e.g. Tuberculosis, Whooping Cough) form are well known, and new ones are periodically discovered.

Both transmissibility and fatality rates vary significant across such diseases. The cold is generally highly transmissible but very rarely fatal. The relatively new MERS coronavirus is fatal in of order 40% of cases, though its transmissibility is currently low.

Most worrisome are pathogens combining high transmissibility with a relatively high fatality rate: the Spanish Flu, with a 5-10% fatality rate and very easy airborne transmission, was a tragic example. How likely is the emergence of another possible example in the next few years?

By 2019 will the CDC, WHO, or a published scientific paper report cases of a naturally-occurring qualitatively new airborne pathogen with a mortality rate of > 5%?

We'll consider a pathogen "qualitatively new" if it is given a unique new name or official nomenclature and widely described as "new." We define a "potential death rate of X" as being fulfilled by any report of > 100 cases in which > X death occurs, or in which > 1 death is reported in a number of reported cases exceeding 100/X. We will consider a pathogen airborne if the CDC, WHO, or a published scientific article verifies that it can in at least some cases be spread without direct contact between people and without contact with bodily fluids or via an intermediate vector.

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