Magazine article Risk Management

Predicting Pandemics: Dr. Nathan Wolfe and the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative Are Aiming to Predict Future Pandemics and Prevent Them before They Take Hold

Magazine article Risk Management

Predicting Pandemics: Dr. Nathan Wolfe and the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative Are Aiming to Predict Future Pandemics and Prevent Them before They Take Hold

Article excerpt

The 1918 influenza pandemic killed roughly 675,000 people in the United States and between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide. The less deadly, but still catastrophic, 1957 and 1968 pandemics caused more than 60,000 and 34,000 deaths, respectively. And though modern medicine has seen a decline in pandemic-related deaths, economist Steven Weisbart claims that a severe influenza pandemic today could cause some $155 billion in death claims.

"The sudden impact of such unpredicted losses would clearly affect all life insurers, particularly the weaker ones," writes Weisbert in a recent Insurance Information Institute report. "A moderate pandemic, modeled on the outbreaks in 1957 and 1968, might cause additional death claims of $150 billion industrywide."

A mere flu pandemic is deadly and costly as it is, but there are other, more lethal viruses growing in animals and humans throughout desolate areas of the world--viruses that have the potential to cause widespread devastation. What if we could predict and prevent such pandemics before they spread?


Enter Dr. Nathan Wolfe, a professor of human biology at Stanford University and founder of Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI), a nonprofit research organization whose mission it is to prevent future pandemics before they take hold. From HIV/ AIDS to SARS to avian flu, the world is continuously susceptible to outbreaks where widespread attention comes only in the aftermath of such events.

The 2003 SARS outbreak was a primer for an international pandemic. The effects of SARS, however, were centered mostly in Canada and Southeast Asia. Because of the outbreak, those countries are generally more advanced in pandemic preparedness than others. "Pandemics like SARS killed over 1,000 people and costs billions of dollars to economies throughout the world," said Dr. Wolfe. "GVFI's objective is to help forecast pandemics before they strike."

The team of GVFI researchers are scattered throughout the jungles and forests of Cameroon, China, Malaysia, Madagascar, Laos and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They test the blood of bush meat hunters to determine if any unknown virus has transferred from the animals they hunt and kill to the hunters themselves. Scientists believe HIV, which has become the most prolific and deadly animal-to-human disease transfer, may have jumped to humans when the blood of an infected chimpanzee came into contact with the blood of a bush meat hunter.

GVFI researchers would like for there to never be another global pandemic. Insurers and risk managers feel the same. Denny Thomas, corporate risk manager and disaster preparedness for Ministry Health Care, feels that naturally occurring pandemics, along with man-made pandemics, are a cause for concern. "Both a naturally occurring pandemic as well as the possibility of a biological terrorist attack pose a great risk," said Thomas. "It has been estimated that you may see as much as a 25% to 30% surge in demand for needs and a 20% to 40% reduction in staff. A pandemic can occur in waves over a period of several months with human resource shortages and supply-chain disruption occurring both regionally and nationally."

The ability to predict and prevent pandemics would be vital to the entire health care industry, as health care risk managers worldwide are seeing. "Information from GVFI would assist health care organizations with supply chain management, staffing, capacity, surge management, etc. …

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