What would happen if a pandemic much worse than Covid hit?

This is a question that’s been haunting me since the early days of 2020, when it wasn’t clear exactly how deadly Covid-19 was. What is now known as SARS-CoV-1, after all, killed almost 10 percent of people with confirmed infections; MERS, another coronavirus, has had a fatality rate of more than 30 percent in confirmed cases. But neither of those viruses was very transmissible; SARS-CoV-2, better known as Covid, however, was from the start a highly contagious virus, and had it killed at anywhere near the rate of those earlier pathogens, the result would have been horrific.

In general, there are trade-offs between how infectious a virus is and how lethal it is, but it’s not an iron rule: smallpox was more contagious than Covid and as deadly as MERS. There’s also the question of which age groups are affected; the 1918 influenza disproportionately killed healthy young adults, unlike seasonal flu, and many viruses are particularly dangerous to babies. (I had a newborn in the early days of Covid, and one of the things we were most grateful for was the random luck that this virus didn’t seem deadly to infants, as it easily could have been.)

I’m not reciting this litany to be as depressing as possible. We should be realistic about just how catastrophic a pandemic could truly get, but we’re also not that far away from a world where the answer to ‘‘

What would happen if a pandemic much worse than Covid hit?

” is “we simply squash it dead.”

That’s the message of a new Geneva Center for Security Policy report by MIT biochemist and Future Perfect 50 selectee Kevin Esvelt about what to do to prepare for the next pandemic. The key takeaway? We’re not helpless, whether against nature or malign actions by human beings. We do have to invest in actually being prepared, but if we’re prepared, we could weather even a worst-case scenario: a deliberate release of a human-made virus engineered to be both extra deadly and extra contagious.

As bad as Covid is, a virus engineered to be deadly and contagious could be far worse, so it will be crucial to make sure that in the near future, we prevent access to dangerous viruses that could be released deliberately and that none get released accidentally. Esvelt proposes that we achieve this by reworking programs that trawl for viruses that’d be incredibly contagious and deadly so they instead work on preventing spillover, reviewing research funding to make sure research into developing deadlier viruses isn’t being funded, and screening DNA synthesis machines to make it harder to print your own deadly virus at home.

These aren’t meant to be perfect solutions — even if they make it harder to release a dangerous virus, they wouldn’t prevent a determined actor entirely — but they could buy us time to develop the technology that will fully protect us from future pandemics.

Read the full article about preventing future pandemics by Kelsey Piper at Vox.com.