2018 BLACK SWAN: PANDEMIC
Viral Fear: How a Global
The next novel influenza
strain could be the catalyst
for a global recession.
By Katie Dwyer
Scientists say the next global flu pandemic is inevitable. The only question is just how deadly it will be.
SCENARIO: The Flower, Bird, Fish, and Insect
Market in Shanghai — stocked with unique
species of poultry, reptiles, roaches and plants —
is a popular tourist destination, especially on a late
September afternoon. An American executive is in
town visiting a potential new business partner, so
he makes a pitstop at the market to take a picture
of himself holding a baby chick — a photo op his
young granddaughter will adore.
He makes it home to the East Coast the next day,
after two packed flights and 24 hours on a plane.
A week later, he’s hospitalized with a high
fever, bacterial pneumonia, body aches and
fatigue. Two weeks later, he’s dead. Another victim
of the flu, it seems, which kills an average 36,000
people in the U.S. every year.
“Influenza is constantly undergoing mutations, so it’s the greatest threat in
terms of pandemic potential,” said Maria Paul, director of product management at
RMS, focused on Life Risks. “The worst-case scenario would be taking an existing
highly lethal virus like an H5N1, and that mutating to a point where it becomes
equally transmissible from human to human.”
Scientists are aware of several flu strains that have existed among swine and
bird populations for some time — the threat comes from those strains’ capacity to
mutate into new viruses that can infect humans. New pathogens are particularly
deadly, because humans have had no
prior exposure and no conditioned
“In terms of likelihood, there is a
3. 6 percent probability per year of a
new influenza strain emerging,” Paul
said. “For other emerging infectious
diseases, that probability drops to about
a 1 percent chance per year.”
Transmissibility is another factor
responsible for influenza’s pandemic
potential. Simply being in the same
room with an infected person could be
enough to catch the disease.
“The way people move is quite
a bit different than it was
100 years ago. We can detect
something quicker, but by the
time we realize it, there’s a good
chance it’s already spread.”
— Nita Madhav, VP, data science, Metabiota
• A novel influenza pathogen could
cause 30 million deaths and a 10
percent drop in GDP.
• Modern day travel, antibiotic
resistance and an aging population
• Every industry would suffer
from illness- and fear-induced
But this isn’t your average flu season.
An avian influenza strain, common in the poultry population in East China, has
mutated to become transmissible not just from animal to animal, but from animal
to human and from human to human. The symptoms mimic those of any other
seasonal flu – fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headaches — but progress
more rapidly and to greater severity.
And it’s spreading fast.
All it takes is a few moments of contact to contract the disease — like holding
an infected animal or a handshake with a farmer in a market stall. Or exposure to
respiratory droplets lingering in the air after a cough on a crowded airplane.
After emerging in China, deadly outbreaks occur in South Korea, Japan, India,
Africa, Latin America and the United States. Because this is a new strain that has
never infected humans before, existing vaccines don’t work.
Half of people exposed to the virus become infected, and 30 percent of those
lose their lives.
Scientists get to work on developing a new vaccine, but it takes nearly a year to
create and distribute the new inoculation. By the time the vaccine makes its way
to health care organizations across the globe and brings the pandemic to an end,
at least 30 million people are dead.
Health insurers suffer $62 billion in losses. Some go out of business, and the
remaining carriers triple their rates. The life insurance industry’s losses amount to
about $25 billion. But the entire global economy suffers.
As many workdays, shopping trips and travel plans were lost due to illness, an
untold number more were lost due to fear.
A desire to avoid infection kept millions away from the office, so productivity
dropped. People stayed away from crowded areas like malls. Restaurants and
movie theaters and retail businesses suffered. No one trusted travel, resulting
in losses in the billions for the aviation, hospitality and tourism industries. As
companies tightened their belts, their suppliers felt the pinch too.
All told, the pandemic cost 30 million lives and about 10 percent of the global
GDP, sparking a worldwide recession.
ANALYSIS: The flu doesn’t sound so scary. It goes around every year. A quick stop
in your local pharmacy for a vaccine shot should protect you. But that’s only true
for the influenza strains already among humans and for which there are already
Kills an Economy