A chilling simulation has revealed just how easily a new pathogen could wipe out a huge slice of the world’s population – up to 900 million people.
Researchers at John Hopkins University simulated the spread of a new illness – a new type of parainfluenza, known as Clade X.
The simulation was designed so the pathogen wasn’t markedly more dangerous than real illnesses such as SARS – and illustrates the tightrope governments tread in responding to such illnesses.
American politicians played out the scenario – which was built to be extremely realistic – where a doomsday cult released a genetically engineered virus.
By the end of the simulation in May, representing 20 months after the start of the outbreak, there were 150 million dead around the world – and no vaccine.
The researchers say that the simulation would have ended with up to 900 million dead, nearly 10% of the world’s population.
Eric Toner of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health Security says the world was ‘lucky’ the SARS outbreak wasn’t worse.
Clade X was designed to spread about as easily and kill a similar percentage to SARS, Toner says.
Toner told Business Insider, ‘I think we learned that even very knowledgeable, experienced, devoted senior public officials who have lived through many crises still have trouble dealing with something like this.’
‘And it’s not because they are not good or smart or dedicated, it’s because we don’t have the systems we need to enable the kind of response we’d want to see.’
Could people really design illnesses which would kill billions?
Man-made synthetic diseases pose a threat to humanity which could wipe out tens of millions – and could lead to a new arms race in ‘bioweapons’, a report earlier this year warned.
A report by American scientists delivered to the Pentagon warned that simple modifications to bacteria could create diseases which were immune to all known antibiotics.
The scientists warned that more complex ‘tweaks’ to microbes could lead to bacteria which would live in people’s guts, producing poison.
Michael Imperiale, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Michigan said, ‘In and of itself, synthetic biology is not harmful.
‘The level of concern depends on the specific applications or capabilities that it may enable,’
‘The US government should pay close attention to this rapidly progressing field, just as it did to advances in chemistry and physics during the Cold War era.’
Astronomer Royal Martin Rees warned earlier this century, ‘’My concern is not only organised terrorist groups, but individual weirdos with the mindset of the people who now design computer viruses.’