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Man vs. Microbe: We’re Not Ready for the Next Global Virus Outbreak

Scientists can conquer coronavirus, but humanity’s war against epidemics is endless.
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Photo illustration: 731; Photo: Getty Images

In the evolutionary arms race between humanity and the microbes, the bugs are making a comeback. Yes, we’ve conquered diseases such as smallpox and polio, and deaths from communicable diseases have been falling worldwide. But since 1970, more than 1,500 new pathogens have been discovered, according to the World Health Organization, and “epidemics in the 21st century are spreading faster and farther than ever. Outbreaks that were previously localized can now become global very rapidly.”

In late 2002 an airborne illness, dubbed severe acute respiratory syndrome, emerged in China’s southern Guangdong province, then quickly spread across the border and killed 774 people from Asia to Canada. In 2009 a novel influenza virus, H1N1, advanced worldwide in nine weeks and may have resulted in as many as 575,000 fatalities. The new virus from central China that’s sparked global alarm, a coronavirus known as 2019-nCoV and a close cousin to SARS, reached four continents in about five weeks.