A pandemic is an epidemic of infectious disease that spreads through populations across a large region; for instance a continent, or even worldwide. Although even the most deadly natural pandemics can only destroy a fraction of the population, it is feared that synthetic biology might lead to pandemics that pose Existential risks.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a pandemic can start when three conditions have been met:
*Emergence of a disease new to a population.
*Agents infect humans, causing serious illness.
*Agents spread easily and sustainably among humans.
A disease or condition is not a pandemic solely because it is widespread or lethal; it must also be infectious.
As advances rapidly continue in Emerging technologies such as Biotechnology, there are fears that a pandemic could be biologically engineered. The release, accidental or malicious, of pathogens engineered with a potent combination of high lethality, infectiousness, and latency is a global catastrophic risk.
Diseases considered for weaponization, or known to be weaponized include anthrax, ebola, Marburg virus, plague, cholera, typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, brucellosis, Q fever, machupo, Coccidioides mycosis, Glanders, Melioidosis, Shigella, Psittacosis, Japanese B encephalitis, Rift Valley fever, yellow fever, and smallpox.
Spores of weaponized anthrax were accidentally released from a military facility near the Soviet closed city of Sverdlovsk in 1979. China also possibly suffered a serious accident at one of its biological weapons plants in the late 1980s. The Soviets suspected that two separate epidemics of hemorrhagic fever that swept the region in the late 1980s were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponizing viral diseases.
Concern about other possible future pandemics
Antibiotic-resistant microorganisms may contribute to the re-emergence of diseases which are currently well-controlled. In the past 20 years, several common bacteria have developed resistance to single antibiotics or even whole classes of antibiotics. Inappropriate antibiotic treatment and overuse of antibiotics have been a contributing factor to the emergence of resistant bacteria. The problem is further exacerbated by self-prescribing of antibiotics by individuals without the guidelines of a qualified clinician and the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics as growth promoters in agriculture.
In 2003, there were concerns that Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) might become pandemic. Rapid action by national and international health authorities prevented a pandemic. However, the disease has not been eradicated and could re-emerge.
It is feared that the H5N1 avian influenza virus could mutate and become both highly contagious and highly lethal in humans, thereby causing a global influenza pandemic. In May 2005, scientists urgently called nations to prepare for a global influenza pandemic that could strike as much as 20% of the world’s population.
The 2009 outbreak of Influenza A H1N1 has reached pandemic status, but it is not very lethal, at least at this point.