If it feels like there have been more and more outbreaks of strange, viral diseases in recent years, it’s not just you. Like K-pop, Brexit, and the presidency of Donald Trump, the increased frequency of pandemics is one of the unforeseen results of globalization.
That’s why the 2014 Ebola episode was so much more lethal—more than 11,000 deaths, versus an old high of 280—than the next largest known outbreak. People can move much faster and much farther than they once did, moving viruses around the globe. Meanwhile, expanded human footprints and climate change are bringing humans into more contact with animals.
“As we move into where they live, the risk of exposure gets higher,” said Nancy Sullivan, a senior investigator at the National Institutes of Health, who developed the first Ebola vaccine. Animals have been a factor in pandemics like MERS, SARS, chikungunya, and Zika, in addition to Ebola, she explained Thursday during a discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.
But if globalization is a central cause of many epidemics and pandemics, it’s also the only way to solve the problem, said Ron Klain, who was tapped by then-President Barack Obama to head the U.S. response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic. Klain said that episode gave some essential intimations about how public-health officials need to be ready—while doctors and scientists like Sullivan work to find vaccines and treatments.