TIME

WARNING: THE NEXT GLOBAL SECURITY THREAT ISN’T WHAT YOU THINK

ON A HYPERCONNECTED PLANET RIFE WITH HYPERINFECTIOUS DISEASES, EXPERTS WARN WE AREN’T READY TO KEEP AMERICA—AND THE WORLD—SAFE FROM THE NEXT PANDEMIC
John Hackett and Charles Chiu handle Zika samples at the University of California, San Francisco

Across China, the virus that could spark the next pandemic is already circulating. It’s a bird flu called H7N9, and true to its name, it mostly infects poultry. Lately, however, it’s started jumping from chickens to humans more readily—bad news, because the virus is a killer. During a recent spike, 88% of people infected got pneumonia, three-quarters ended up in intensive care with severe respiratory problems, and 41% died.

What H7N9 can’t do—yet—is spread easily from person to person, but experts know that could change. The longer the virus spends in humans, the better the chance that it might mutate to become more contagious—and once that happens, it’s only a matter of time before it hops a plane out of China and onto foreign soil, where it could spread through the air like wildfire.

From Ebola in West Africa to Zika in South America to MERS in the Middle East, dangerous outbreaks are on the rise around the world. The number of new diseases per decade has increased nearly fourfold over the past 60 years, and since 1980, the number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled.

Some recent outbreaks registered in the U.S. as no more than a blip in the news, while others, like Ebola, triggered an intense but temporary panic. And while a mutant bug that moves from chickens in China to humans in cities around the world may seem like something out of a Hollywood script, the danger the world faces from H7N9—and countless other pathogens with the potential to cause enormous harm—isn’t science fiction. Rather, it’s the highly plausible nightmare scenario that should be keeping the President up at night.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ranks H7N9 as the flu strain with the greatest potential to cause a pandemic—an infectious-disease outbreak that goes global. If a more contagious H7N9 were to be anywhere near as deadly as it is now, the death toll could be in the tens of millions.

“We are sitting on something big with H7N9,” says Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a co-author of the new book Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs. “Any one of these cases could trigger something big. By then it’d be way too late.”

Too late because even as the scientific and international communities have begun to take the threat of pandemics more seriously, global health experts—including Bill Gates, World

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from TIME

TIME2 min read
Conversation
THE RISK OF REOPENING AMERICA Haley Sweetland Edwards’ May 25 cover story on problems with the federal approach to reopening the U.S. left some readers feeling it was unfair “to lay all our virus problems at [President Donald Trump’s] doorstep,” as J
TIME3 min read
When In Doubt, Just Assume I’m Smiling
I MISS SMILING. I DON’T MISS IT IN THE INSPIRATIONAL poster “the whole world smiles with me” way. I don’t miss it, as another poster says, because I can no longer “intimidate those who wish to destroy me.” I don’t miss it because “happiness looks gor
TIME5 min read
A Kaleidoscopic Portrait Of India
“WRITERS AND POLITICIANS ARE NATURAL rivals,” Salman Rushdie wrote in his 1982 essay “Imaginary Homelands.” “Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory. And the novel is one way of denying the official, p