May 23 • 1HR 4M

Wendy Orent: Pandemics are now a matter of choice. We CAN prevent the next one.

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We challenge BoomXer's to deliver on the Big Ideas needed to save the world by 2035. This is for people of all ages who are excited by the future and fearful for the present.
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"pandemics are not accidents... things that just happen, forces outside humanity... pandemics are something that we actually make." And so begins my discussion with Wendy Orent, author of Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease and a well-known science writer with a focus on pandemics, biological weapons, and the evolution of infectious diseases. Wendy explains the history of pandemics, and the most recent COVID experience so that we can all understand it. And then tells us how we can prevent the next one in an equally understandable fashion.

Hello, I’m Bob Westrope.

I believe these things to be true.

  1. We live in an Age of Abundance, where, for the first time we have the means to eradicate human suffering, want and need.

  2. Our world is in unprecedented danger. Too many issues that must be dealt with simultaneously, from climate change to an all-out assault on democracy itself.

  3. We have years – not decades - to prevail. To make possible a new Age of Wonder.

  4. The root problem is a systemic, global leadership insufficiency.

  5. We can’t rely alone on current systems and structures to address this insufficiency. It’s time for big ideas.

  6. It’s on us to fix it - the BoomXers born from 1946-1980. We have the experience, networks, power, money, time and most importantly the motivation. It’s our children’s world. It’s our legacy.

Join me as I explore the big ideas needed to inspire our generation to action – ideas offered by leading thinkers, doers and activists united by the understanding that we all share one very small and very fragile planet.

Let's get started.

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2019 seemed like it was ending on an OKish note. I was focused on the existential threat to democracy that Donald Trump and the MAGA phenom represented not to just the United States, but to the world.  2020, and the US election, seemed almost certainly to be the years main event.

Having said that, as a newshound, I’m positive I recall knowing of rumblings from China the week between Christmas and New Years about people contracting an unusual flu in Wuhan.  On December 30th, there were news reports about a Chinese opthamologist who was trying to raise the alarm with his colleagues, not knowing then that he would be one of the diseases first fatalities. Certainly, within the first week of the New Year, more and more reports were emerging of the spread of this disease, and by the end of the month it had embedded itself into the global zeitgeist. 

Our collective last ‘normal’ day was Wednesday March 11.  We woke up in one world and went to bed in another.   At 10:59am Eastern, Dr. Anthony Fauci, a name soon to be famously known to us all, and infamously by too many, testified before Congress that the coronavirus outbreak would get worse.  At 12:26pm, the World Health Organization declared COVID 19 to be a pandemic. By early evening Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson announced that they had tested positive, and the NBA had suspended the season. The DOW lost 9.99% of its value – the worst drop since Black Monday in 1987.

My last quasi normal day was on Saturday March 14, when Judy and I had breakfast with some  family members in an empty diner.  We quickly agreed, that we weren’t being very smart, and soon parted company - without kissing, embracing or even shaking hands. It would be something like 18 months before Judy and I would again be in the company of another unmasked person – even if it was outdoors and they were 20 feet away.

At the time of writing this, almost half a billion of us have contracted the virus, with 6.2 million of us succumbing. Most worryingly, it seems that somewhere between 40 and 60% of those half billion survivors may experience lifelong debility as a result of what we now call long COVID.  Financially, the cost has likewise been staggering, according to the IMF costing the global economy at least US $12.5 trillion measured through to the end of 2024. 

But arguably, the more enduring cost is the further fracturing of democratic society, as always with the US as the exemplar of dysfunction and self-inflicted misfortune. Trumps weaponization of COVID was incredibly effective at seizing on the virus as the new battlefront of the culture wars.  At pitting those who look to the future for inspiration and guidance, as opposed to those who long for a return to a past that never existed. Those who believe in the power of science and knowledge, as opposed to those who believe in a guy named Q.

Incredibly, the nation who did the most to drive the miraculous development of the vaccines that have blunted the pandemics advance, itself ranks as having the 18th worst per-capita death rate out of 193 of the countries tracked by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Just in the last few days, we crossed the line at which 1 million Americans have died of COVID.  Johns Hopkins has estimated that a quarter of those deaths were preventable, in as much as over 30% of Republicans refuse to get vaccinated.  It follows that the counties that voted for Trump reported the highest per-capita death rate, meaning that most of the preventable deaths were amongst Republican voters.

A matter of public health was seized on as a personal rights issue, a David and Goliath combat pitting the ‘little guy’, the ‘’common man’ against the tyranny of the state.  That this was clearly and purposefully amplified by bad faith actors foreign and domestic on social media was a truism, though a truism largely ignored and certainly forgotten. This division led to public unrest in virtually all the democracies, from the Netherlands to the trucker convoy in Canada.

In turn, this served to mask the real inequity of the disease, that is that the hardest hit by far  were non-white and poor, the lowest income earners of the working class. The myth of the disease as the great leveller was shattered, revealing more, not fewer of societies schisms to the extent that the very foundations of those societies were brought into question.

What began in Wuhan China in late 2019 broke the world as we knew it.  The post-war globalist, capitalist international order, already fragile, was overwhelmed by the tsunami of consequences – the cost of lives lost, the financial cost, broken supply chains decades in the making, likely even the war in Ukraine.

It would seem obvious that it would be unlikely that we could survive another pandemic, as bad or worse than the one hopefully just ending.  But it may well be the case that we as a world will have to do just that. Many, including Bill Gates are arguing that the conditions that led to the evolution of the virus in 2019 remain unaddressed, and that we must prepare for more pandemics.

One person who has been following this issue with an expert eye is my guest today, Wendy Orent. Wendy is an American anthropologist and science writer with a focus on pandemics, biological weapons, and the evolution of infectious diseases. She is the author of Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease, and is a freelance science writer whose work has appeared in "The Washington Post", "The Sciences", "The Los Angeles Times", "The New Republic", "Discover", and "The American Prospect".

Bob Westrope 

Okay, Wendy, what is your big idea?

Wendy Orent 

My big idea is that pandemics are not accidents. They've been compared to hurricanes and earthquakes, things that just happen, forces outside humanity that can just sweep across - basically, we're in a position of having to react rather than prevent them. My big idea is that pandemics are something that we actually make. We make them with the way that we raise and market animals. In the past, it may have had more to do with the crowding of people, that's certainly an element, but the actual creation of novel pathogens, for the truly pandemic of viruses like the 2009 Swine Flu, the 1957 Avian Flu, the1968 wave of flu, certainly 1918 - but that's complicated. Now this one came out of the way that we raise and market animals. We allow them to develop in these, what I call disease factories, either massive industrial farms, or live wild animal markets. SARS I was an example, and SARS II was an example, and wasting our time looking into the so called ‘lab leak’ theory is just not pointing the finger where it should be pointed at, which is the way that we use and exploit animals, and the conditions under which we keep them.

Bob Westrope 

Obviously, the COVID experience of the of the last few years has been, framing for you. Do you want to talk a bit more about how the COVID experience directly led you to this conclusion?

Wendy Orent 

I came to this conclusion long before the COVID experience. What I wasn't prepared for, was the way that this thing evolved and developed in humanity. I think this took everybody by surprise, shock and awe that a virus could be so insanely transmissible. That it could transmit from people who do not know that they're infected, that is from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people. Nobody saw this coming. I certainly didn't see it coming. I wouldn't have even thought it was possible. But this thing, just like SARS I, came out of the conditions in these live animal markets, and we know what happens to SARS I, so it isn't rocket science to figure out what's happening with SARS II. It's reinforced this idea that I've had for at least 15 years about disease factories, longer than that, that when you have animals or people crowded together, it's no cost to the virus to spread from one to another. That's when you can get the evolution of deadly, more deadly, or more transmissible pathogens.

Bob Westrope 

Can you talk a bit more about the concept of ‘cost’?

Wendy Orent 

Oh, yes. It's a truism that viruses don't want to kill their hosts. It's not necessarily true, but people say this. Viruses don't want to kill their hosts because they must keep the host alive in order to infect another host. Anybody who's interested in what I'm going to refer to here as the theory of virulence is very well advised to consult the work of Paul W. Ewald, who wrote a fantastic book. It's a bit dated. I understand he's working on a revision, but it's called the Evolution of Infectious Disease. This lays out most of this theory really beautifully. The idea is that a virus that relies on a host, needs to be mobile to get the infection to somebody else, and therefore is going to stay mild to moderate in virulence. For example, if you take Ebola, there's no way that Ebola has the capacity to become a pandemic – it can’t - because it doesn't spread that way. It spreads through actual contact with the body fluids of the sick, and it doesn't care if it kills you, because it's the body fluids that contain the germs that are going to enable it to infect another host. Similarly, Paul Ewald called the smallpox virus a ‘sit and wait’ pathogen because the virus is so durable in the external environment, it doesn't matter if it kills the host, because the virus particles are left behind. Somebody left, this is true, a smallpox scab on a shelf somewhere, a laboratory, and they found that after 13 years it was still infectious. That's how durable these things are. Anthrax spores will last literally for centuries, unless they're exposed to ultraviolet light, literally for centuries in the soil. Those things don't care if they kill an animal or a person because they're so durable. Another thing is, if a disease is transmitted like cholera, in the water, it again doesn't matter if the host dies, because the pathogen is already out.

Then there are hospital borne infections, which is sort of close to what Ebola is, where it's born from person to person, because of the care given to the sick or dying person. I once did a piece on this for the Financial Times, about how Ebola is a disease spread by love, it is a love-borne pathogen, you can put it that way. And I don't mean sexually transmitted, I mean because people love and care for their sick family. This is how Ebola spreads. This happened in 1910 in Manchuria, where there was an epidemic of plague, and the sick people were forced out into the street to freeze to death. That's not what you had in Africa. You had the maintenance of a terrible deadly disease because people couldn't abandon those that they love. So now we've got a vaccine, and we're hoping that that never ever happens again.

If there's a cost to the virus, it's going to lower its virulence. In other words, if you have a very deadly strain of flu, like the 1918 flu, and you cannot transmit it because it's knocked you down and killed you, the strains that are circulating in the area that are less virulent than yours are going to take over. This is how we figured out most of this stuff, by figuring out what happened in 1918. You had an ordinary flu, that apparently evolved somewhere in Kansas, and got into the soldiers who were going to the Western Front. They sailed across the Atlantic in these troopships, and got to the Western Front, where the virus was cooked to a very high variance because the soldiers were packed in, in the trucks, in the trenches, and there was no cost to the virus to become very virulent, to evolve great virulence. And so, because of the way the troops were moved around the world, it just exploded worldwide, and it killed, nobody knows for sure, but I've heard figures from 20 to 100 million, I tend to be a little skeptical of the 100 million, but in any case, a staggering number of people died. What happened in 1918, which has not happened here, not yet, is that it evolved lower variance very quickly, once the exact conditions that gave rise to it disappeared, so that it took about six months the 1918 Flu to become an ordinary flu, and it's still with us today. It's the H1N1 strains that are circulating today. That's another story - how they disappeared in 1957 and they reappeared in 1977. That was an actual lab leak. That's a real thing. I have a piece that came out today on the true history of lab leaks and the threat that they represent, in a magazine called Open Minds. In any case, that was a lab leak, but the strains that are circulating today are descendants of the 1918 flu, and they're quite moderate - mild to moderate.

Bob Westrope 

Was COVID the dress rehearsal for the ‘big one’?

Wendy Orent 

The big one? I mean, could we have a more virulent virus? I don't know. Maybe. All bets are off. But this is bigger than 1918 in some ways. Probably the deadliness is more or less the same, maybe, we don't know for sure, but the IFR - the infection fatality rate - which we won't really know until it's all over, is 1 to 2%. The 1918 flu was supposedly about 2.5% percent, so we're in the ballpark. The difference is that 1918 was over in six months. Whereas this goes on, and on, and on. And what's going on now in Hong Kong is just the most shocking thing, because it's like early 2020, all over again - people are dying like flies over there. It's just horrifying. This is a horrifying, horrifying disease.

Bob Westrope 

As a lay person, it seems hard to look at the media and say that there's a glaring success story out there. What have we done wrong?

Wendy Orent 

Well, we haven't done anything wrong. I mean, the last administration was a disaster. The worst thing they did was politicize it. To make wearing masks seem unmanly, or wimpish, to militate against a lot of the protective measures, and certainly facilitating the anti-vaccine movement. This is the big problem, the anti-vaccine movement. I think only 65% of the country is actually vaccinated now, this insane! The safest vaccine that's ever been created - these MRNA’s are absolute genius.

There's a staggering number of people who refuse to take the vaccine. Because, oh, I don't know it varies from “I'm healthy and strong, and I'm not afraid” to “the vaccine is going to kill us.” As if COVID isn't already killing us. “It's only the fat obese, morbid people that are dying,” which is absolutely not true. Children are dying, young, healthy people are dying. It gets you when it gets you, and the rates of of morbidity are greater in the elderly, but they're not nothing in younger people either. Then there's long COVID, which is another story. But when I say we haven't done anything wrong, our messaging has never been any good. The CDC has never really presented a solid front that we could believe. The messaging has been disastrous, but the magnificent development of this vaccine in record time - I just don't understand why there isn't more gratitude.

Another thing was that neither Pfizer or Moderna would share their formula with other countries, they wouldn't break their patent. This is a worldwide problem, and the issue should have been “let's vaccinate the world,” rather than “let's give billions and billions and billions to these admittedly brilliant and amazing companies who did this.” We should have shared the vaccine more widely. Now people are doing that with a different vaccine. There's something called Corbevax I think, which has been developed by Peter Hotez and his colleagues in Texas, and they have given the formula free of charge to the whole world, because their goal is not to make money, but to vaccinate the world. And we need that.

Bob Westrope 

People have been listening to environmentalists talk about how climate change is helping to incubate pandemics, and have been anticipating, again to use the lay term, the “big one.” You're saying we're actually in it. Can it get worse, in your opinion?

Wendy Orent 

No, I don't think so. I don't think there's any reason to think it's going to evolve any greater virulence. There’s just no mechanism that would make it do that. We could get another strain, like Delta, which would be a little hotter, but there's only so far that the virus can actually mutate. We don't know what the parameters are, but a virus is not infinitely malleable. If it evolves too far to evade vaccination, vaccine derived immunity, or prior immunity from infection, perhaps it'll lose virulence. Or, maybe if it diminishes transmissibility, that simply eliminates a strain from contention, because when you have two strains, one's more transmissible than the other, bye-bye to the less transmissible virus. We've seen this virus getting more and more and more transmissible, with some evasion of immunity, but we haven't, except for Delta, really seen a heightening of virulence. And I don't really expect that that's going to be a huge issue.

Now, when I say this was the Big One, what I mean, is this is a stealth infection. What I mean by that is, it spreads from people who do not know that they're infected. They're, pre-symptomatic, or they're asymptomatic, which means that you have mobile hosts running all over the place, who have no idea that they're their host at all. And they're passing on, not strains of diminished virulence, but strains of normal virulence, which means that there's no pressure on the virus to diminish its virulence. Do you see? The only diseases that I can think of that worked that way, are polio and the Black Death. With polio, of every 100 to 200 people that polio infected, most will be asymptomatic. Many will have a stomach upset, a gastrointestinal infection, and just one will be paralyzed. So that was just a self-infection from Hell. The Black Death, unlike other forms of plague, also spread from people who didn't know that they were infected, because the Black Death, unlike other strains of plague, was mostly pneumonic, supported by human fleet transmission. It was a person-to-person disease, not a rat-borne disease, the way most other plague strains are. People would get infected, not know they were infected, and gallop off to flee the plague to the next city, to then fall down and bring the infection in that way. It just galloped all over all over the world that way. So yes, we're dealing with three stealth infections that I can think of, there may be others, but those are the only ones that I can think of. And this is one of them. That's what I say it's the Big One.

Bob Westrope 

If the big idea is to look at the animal husbandry factories, as you call them, and wet markets - the dense congregation of animals - is this really vital? That suggests that there is a bigger potential threat out there.

Wendy Orent 

I don't know what could be out there. I think there was a huge panic over the H5N1, which you may remember, that did kill a number of people in the hundreds. And it was a horrible disease. That evolved in the giant poultry farms in Southeast Asia where, when I was researching it, I was horrified to discover that there were some farms that had 5 million chickens, 5 million, smashed in like sardines, except living sardines, so there was no cost to the virus to spread from chicken, to chicken, to chicken. The difference was that the virus was so highly adapted to chickens in terms of the receptors, in terms of the way it spread, that there may have been in all those years, one possible case of human-to-human transmission, but that was it - the thing had no capacity to turn into a pandemic.

The 2009 flu, though, evolved in the giant pig markets at Smithfield farms, an American-owned pig farm in La Gloria, Veracruz, Mexico. It evolved because pigs are more like people than chickens are, and you got the evolution of this flu, which fortunately, wasn't very virulent, but was damaging enough. That again, was a result of animal husbandry.

But the really, really, really wild card here is the wet markets. It's more serious. Because there you're not getting the evolution of a flu virus, which is going to lose virulence as it transmits. It always does. But you're getting the evolution of these weird Corona viruses that do what COVID did.  Could we evolve a more virulent one? Yes, that's possible, we just don't know. I mean, there are unknown unknowns out there. But messing around with coronaviruses, which seems to be the big threat in these wet markets, not influenza, is a very, very dangerous thing. I don't know what could come out next time.

Bob Westrope 

It's a combination of exotic animal markets, right when those two come together.

Wendy Orent 

Yes, yes. Precisely. Because they're harboring God knows what pathogens. People keep saying, where's the host animal? Well, there is no host animal. We’re the host animal! We’re the host for this thing. There's been some excellent work done by a scientist named Michael Worobey, and Edward Holmes and his colleague Angie Rasmussen, brilliant, brilliant work showing with genomic analysis, how this thing originated, what it's closely related to. And Worobey, in a brilliant, fantastic paper, showed how the early cases of COVID all clustered around this one market, the Huanan seafood market. I love the name seafood, because it's so infernally misleading - not that they don't sell seafood there - but it was like 47 species, something crazy like that. All kinds of things, things you never heard of. Animals we barely knew existed, and some of these things were infected with God knows what. If you can imagine everything crowded in together, somewhere along line a bat virus got into perhaps a civet cat or raccoon dog, civet cats were implicated in the evolution of SARS I. There were thousands of stalls in this market, all these cages packed in - civet cats, raccoons, dogs, pangolins, maybe, who knows what all packed in together.  Coronaviruses are graded at jumping species. So, the disease went from this animal, to this animal, to this animal, to this animal, again - no cost to the virus because they're packed in. And there's no need to keep the host mobile, so the virus evolves great virulence. And then it gets into the keepers. If you have 1,000 stalls, you must have a minimum of 1,000 keepers and this immense amount of foot traffic coming in through the market. So it was nothing for people to catch this from animals. It happened. We know that there are two lineages, so it happened twice at least, that we know of, moving back and forth from animals to people, animals to people, animals to people, animals to people, and then person to person, to person, to person, to person. As it moved among people, it adapted more and more and more to people, and now we have a human-adapted disease. Then it gets into the minks, you know about that, right? How it caused infection in the giant mink farms, which is very good reason to get rid of giant mink farms. There it adapted to the minks, and as it adapted to a different species, it probably becomes less effective in humans. The joy of crowd-viruses is the way they can jump back.

Bob Westrope 

In our pre brief discussion, you made a point I thought that was interesting. That most people in the West think that the wet markets exist to serve poor or low-income people. That's not your experience?

Wendy Orent 

Well, I have no experience, but it's not what I have read. I remember back when SARS I happened, I talked to Norma Diamond, the late Norma Diamond who was an anthropology professor, and she said all this stuff is luxury meat. It's for the upper classes, to exhibit their wealth, to enhance their virility. Supposedly, it’s a kind of an efflorescence of wealth, of status, it's another form of showing off, like the car you’re driving. So, these markets can stay open as long as they're selling pork and fish - that's not a problem. You're serving poor people by selling that kind of meat. This is great. Why not? But the exotic trade has got to die. It's just got to die, because so many people have died as a result of this exotic trade.

Bob Westrope 

That's a really interesting take on it. We'll come back to that in terms of how we deal with this. We have two related but distinct challenges, one being the wet markets, and the other being the industrialized raising of animals around the world. I hear you say that any place you have 5 million chickens packed in together you have the potential for an outbreak of some kind.

Wendy Orent 

You have the potential to evolve a virus that is going to kill people, probably not a pandemic threat. There have been so many viruses that have evolved in these markets, and because of the way chickens are, and the way people are, in terms of the receptors that the influenza virus uses, which in humans are far down in the lungs, and chicken ribs are up here in the upper respiratory crack. If it's far down in the lungs, you can't really cough it out, you can get sick, but you can't transmit it. And it also has to do with the temperature that these viruses grow at. Chicken viruses will grow at higher temperature than human flu viruses. So, I'm not worried about a life altering, world destroying pandemic evolving out of the chicken farms, but you still get a deadly disease - it's going to kill people. And why should we do that?

Bob Westrope 

For sure. If we are looking at this from a global perspective and are taking the view of “how do we avoid the next pandemic?” then I hear you saying that we need to change the behavior of the wet markets and the pig farms. Let's talk then about that. What are your thoughts on how we would change those behaviors to eliminate the problem?

Wendy Orent 

We can't. Only the Chinese and Southeast Asians can. We can’t do a thing. We can just pressure them. That's all we can do. We can't march into China and say, “close down those farms.” The Chinese did close them down for a while, but it's a 60 billion dollar trade a year, a lot of money, and a lot of powerful families involved in this trade. And they don't want to turn it off.

Bob Westrope 

Your peers in the public health field - to what extent are they mobilized to address this problem? Are they working with their Chinese peers?

Wendy Orent 

Oh, I don't think so. I think a lot of people, like the scientists I cited, are very, very well aware of this. Dr. Edward Holmes has been shouting about this for years. But as long as you're deflecting to this nutty insanity about the lab leaks, where so much energy has gone into the conspiracy that the Chinese and Dr. Fauci and Dr. Peter Daszak are all conspiring to make this virus is lunatic. As long as you're focused on that, we're not putting the pressure on where it needs to be, which is on ending this live animal trade, and I have no idea how to do it. I really don't.

Bob Westrope 

Is there an awareness, or at least a substantive awareness within China bout the issue from their public health perspective?

Wendy Orent 

I don't know about their public health, but I know that there are activists who have addressed this topic. But of course, there’s not all that much freedom there is there?

Bob Westrope 

You're right, it is an interesting challenge. That prospective threat that has the potential to change the course of human history. We know that we know the origin sources. And yet how to how to address the challenge is interesting. To your knowledge, is it within certain provinces in China, Wuhan keeps coming up as...

Wendy Orent 

...one province but SARS I evolved in Guangdong. I don't know, to be honest, how widespread it is around China, but we know about Guangdong, and we know about Wuhan.

Bob Westrope 

Have there been explicit efforts on the part of CDC or the WHO to try and put pressure on the Chinese?

Wendy Orent 

Not that I know of. You know, you've got a bunch of constituents and...

Bob Westrope 

I'm going to guess, because the Chinese are now major constituents at WHO...

Wendy Orent 

Yes, exactly. I can't say that the CDC has been providing the best possible resource throughout COVID, which has been, I think, immensely disappointing to a lot of people. I've known people, the CDC for decades, and there are some absolutely brilliant top-notch scientists there. But the problem with the CDC from the beginning of this pandemic has been a communications problem. And I really can't say more than that.

Bob Westrope 

It sounds like, implicitly, what you're saying is that it's a leadership problem. And this leadership insufficiency has been manifested by a communications challenge, yes, on the one hand, but if there's any chance of addressing the problem, which is a domestic Chinese problem at the source, we need somebody to take a leadership position and make it an issue and press home on the issue.

Wendy Orent 

Well, we're so divided. So many people think that it's really a government conspiracy to cover up this lab leak. This is a real problem. If you don't acknowledge where the source is, it becomes easy to say, “we don't know, it could have come from the laboratory, it could have come from a cave, it could have come from anywhere.” But it didn't. The thing is bat viruses don't turn into pandemic human viruses overnight because it's adapted to bats. Bats are one thing; humans are another thing. So, you have to disentangle the bat adaptation, even if it comes from bats, originally. It's got to be disentangled from the bat, get into other animals, and become something of a generalist before it can become a human pandemic. Then it has to evolve from person to person to person to person - if it doesn't have a long chain of human transmission, it's not going to become a human pathogen. So, in the words of Dr. Vincent Racaniello, who is a world class for virologist, no viruses ever come out of a bat ready to go. It's not like you can just get a bat, and then get a pandemic - you need this interface, which is the wet market.

Bob Westrope 

It's frustrating in that at one level, it's a fairly simple solution. There are perfectly modern supermarkets in China, and wet markets that don't have exotic animals are far less a threat. It's eliminating the exotic animal component of that, getting a specific cohort of the Chinese demographic and psychographic to change their behavior. And even then, not in that many places in China. It's a challenge that is reasonably easily framed. The solution is what is difficult...

Wendy Orent 

Because they're not going to listen to Wendy Orent. Why would they? They're not going to listen to Edward Holmes, who's a great scientist. He's been saying this for decades because he's visited these markets, and he said, “this is a pandemic waiting to happen” when he went to the Huanan market. If they don't listen to somebody like Edward Holmes, I don't know who they're going to listen to.

Bob Westrope 

We know the cost globally of COVID is in the trillions of dollars. Millions of lives lost. Trillions, if not tens of trillions of dollars either lost outright, or due to lost opportunity cost...

Wendy Orent 

...and the health costs of long COVID - we don't even know how many people that affects.

Bob Westrope 

That's actually the bigger issue. On the one hand, you have that cost, and standing in the way is that $60 billion marketplace. That's a big number, but it pales in comparison to the derivative costs from the downstream consequence of pandemic. Many of the issues in this podcast series come down to somehow trying to mobilize a cohort with some investment dollars. You and I joked about this in the pre brief, but does it come down to funding an advertising campaign in China, supporting the local Chinese activists that are working in this area, so that it's not an outside intrusion into Chinese domestic politics?

Wendy Orent 

It is possible, I simply don't know enough about Chinese society to answer that. If there were a way to support Chinese activists, I completely agree with you that it can't be an outside effort, unless it's a governmental effort to pressure the government. But I don't see that happening. The world has to say with one voice, “shut these markets down!” And then they have to be shut down everywhere. They're also hideously inhumane - it hurts my heart. I mean, the way they treat these animals is just horrible.

Bob Westrope 

That's a not insignificant part of this challenge. The work that we continue to explore in this podcast series is about presenting challenges that require mobilization. That ‘one voice’ isn't going to come from governments, certainly not in the environment we live in today. So that voice is going to have to come from the people as it were, and as you say, the people are pretty divided. But there is a cohort out there, of people who, if we could get them connected, and we could get them mobilized, and provided them some resource. It's got to come from actors like that to devise these solutions. And it's not going to be one solution, it's got to be a multi-pronged approach. It can't be coercive of the Chinese, it needs to devise the strategies and tactics to be able to get the Chinese government and the Chinese people to change their behavior. If we don't do this, if we continue as we are, what are your predictions of the future?

Wendy Orent 

Oh, this will happen again. It'll happen again. It'll keep on happening. The last one was in 2003, then this was 2020. I don't know what could happen tomorrow. It could happen in 10 years could have been 40 years. But it will happen because the conditions are still there. So why wouldn't it happen? What was the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? It will happen again. And God knows what will happen this time. SARS was much more lethal, SARS I, much more lethal, killing 10% of the people who got it, but it spread late in the infection, so it's easy to eliminate. Who knows, maybe the next one really will be the big one if as virulent as SARS and as transmissible as COVID, though I’m I kind of skeptical of that. But maybe there's no reason for that skepticism. I don't know how we get enough people behind this to shut it down.

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Here’s my take on my conversation with Wendy today.

For my part, I found Wendy’s breakdown of the problem to be most helpful – starting with her observation that pandemics are not like the weather, something we must just bear, but rather are preventable phenomena if treated as a public health issue with the science and technology currently at hand. At the end of the day, global pandemics are, to a significant degree, a matter of choice now.

Wendy does a very skillful job of explaining the mechanics of pandemic in general, and of the COVID 19 experience specifically – laying the context before us, both with respect to time and geography. She also lays out the awful cost of the pandemics that were not a matter of choice, in times and places where the knowledge to combat them did not exist. And finally, Wendy speaks of the insidious weaponization of the pandemic and the consequence of an equally virulent strain of ignorance that is now infecting every country on the planet.

While the post-mortem on the pandemic remains to be made, Wendy speaks of the “miraculous” vaccines that we should rightly be proud of.  But she reminds us too that the so-called capitalist system that led to their development, while heavily subsidized with public monies, is failing the less-developed world by not sharing the vital intellectual property of those vaccines with those who now need it most.

But it was Wendy’s focusing on the wet and exotic animal and seafood markets of principally China that resonated.  While clearly not the source of all pandemics in the past, nor the only potential source for those that lay before us, a preponderance of potential lies in China, in the disease factories of that country’s 31 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions.

Especially enlightening, was the assertion that this $60 billion market is not, as is generally portrayed, driven by the poor as their principal protein source, but rather that the exotic live animal market is driven by the rich, in their quest for status and even male virility. In other words, Wendy has defined the source, scale and scope of the challenge.  If we want to prevent the next pandemic, it’s likely that shutting down the exotic animal markets that co-exist with wet markets will do the trick – or at least go a long way to mitigating the threat. Something that caused the loss of life of 6.5 million people (and counting) and will cost the world at least $12.5 trillion, can be caused by shutting down of a $60 billion marketplace in a known location.

Wendy’s big idea that these markets need to be ended seems straightforward enough. But we are also told that many in the scientific and public health communities fully appreciate the problem, it’s just that there appears to be no way to actually execute a strategy that would see their end. At least, not by doing things as we’re doing them, or as we’ve always done them.  We can continue to exert pressure on China to address the issue, to expect that the aggregate of our governments and NGO’s will somehow newly respond to the demands of the situation.  But that’s the source of Wendy’s frustration, isn’t it?  Knowing that nothing can be done. Or at least, that our institutions are doing their best, even if we all know it’s not enough, and won’t be enough to prevent the ‘next one’.

With respect, it’s time to call bullshit on all of this. In my last episode, I concluded that the world needs a DEMOS Project. The big idea raised by Wendy is a perfect example of why it is needed. I submit that our leadership and the institutions they lead, are not sufficient alone, to address this, or any of the existential challenges that we as a species are contending with. They are not agile enough to match the exponential, systemic and global transformations driven by technology, most for the better, but many, purposefully, for not.

The DEMOS Project is the working name for the work done by Leaders Expedition, the connection, empowerment and mobilization of the global community no longer willing to let the voices at the edges of our societies speak for us. A systemic, global, civic movement inspired by the innovation, courage, vision and collaboration of the Marshall Plan, Kennedy’s Moonshot or the COVID vaccine – with the power to prevail.

How would that address Wendy’s issue? I’m asserting that if our governments can’t or won’t deal with the issue, then some agency must.  Is that going to be the World Health Organization or some other NGO?  I wouldn’t bet our lives on it.  I’m saying that in a world of gordion existential issues where each is evolving and interacting with the other in a rapid, iterative fashion, not unlike a pandemic – we must stop reacting to these issues and instead develop the capacity to address the root causes. And we must do that with a purposeful alacrity and agility that is clearly absent.

Is it impossible in this world, that is still richer in every way than it’s ever been, to focus the efforts of 5, 10 or 20 thousand people on the specific issue – and solution – raised by Wendy? Must it be impossible to imagine allocating $100 million dollars to the development, by Chinese marketers, of let’s say, an advertising campaign focused on changing the behaviour of their compatriots – not unlike the anti-seal hunting campaigns that succeeded in Canada? What are other out-of-the-box solutions that must be tried in parallel, not sequentially, to address this existential challenge? If it costs even half a billion dollars to end the markets, must that remain a price too high to pay?

With each ratcheting up of the issue of the day, Ukraine, inflation, racial, social and financial inequity, we are looking more and more to the leaders and institutions already found insufficient to the need – our need.  Isn’t that the definition of insanity?  Isn’t it time for a Plan B? Are our only choices to rely on the structures and institutions that got us here – yes for much good, but also now clearly for a great deal that is simply insufficient. Creating another NGO won’t change anything.  Not in the time we have left to address all of the issues that we must.

It's time for Plan B. It's time for the DEMOS Project.