Some years ago Bill Gates was asked in an interview what future scenario it was that kept him awake at night.
To the surprise of the interviewer, he did not say climate change, or financial collapse, or nuclear war. He said he most afraid of the next major pandemic, in the vein of the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed up to 100 million people – around 5% of the world’s population at the time.
When you are a billionaire, and you have a thought about something, the next thing you do is hire a load of people to look into it. Gates did just this, and his team simulated a pandemic using a computer model that was designed to replicate the flows of human travel around the world.
The model found that if there was another deadly disease of the same virulence and deadliness as Spanish Flu, there would cases in virtually every urban centre on earth within a matter of weeks.
This was principally due to the ease with which people can fly around the world infecting each other, compared with a century ago when the best you got was a train or a ship, so the geographical spread was narrower and the continent-hops slower.
It is this insight that has the world’s health experts worried every time there is an outbreak like the coronavirus currently bedevilling China. So far 4,515 cases have been recorded in the country, and authorities are struggling to contain its spread, principally because so many people fled in the hours between the announcement of a ban on movement and the ban coming into effect.
As with everything, there is a business angle to this. Investors are nervy because they are trying to work out just how serious the situation is likely to get. Equities the world over suffered on Monday, with the UK’s own FTSE 100 falling 2%, the worst day of trading since October, when politics was getting everyone seriously down in the markets. Wall Street is facing a similar situation, and companies lost 1.5% of their value on average.
The fear is that the disease could really get a hold and echo the SARS virus, which also came from China, and caused over 8,000 infections and 774 deaths in 17 countries.
It is telling that, even though the international community has managed to get on top of several of these, from foot-and-mouth disease, BSE, Ebola and so on, the outbreak of a new one is causing serious apprehension.
It suggests that there is perhaps a feeling in the trading community that one day, one of these is going to be the big one, potentially infecting hundreds of thousands of people. The news coming from China is alarming if you look at it through that prism: the containment strategies do not seem to be working that well, and the World HealthOrganisation is getting involved.
One of the main risks is that because this comes in the middle of the Chinese New Year holiday season, a huge amount of pent up anger may arise among the populations affected by the bans on movement.
This is a time of year when hundreds of millions of people move around simultaneously in China to go and visit relatives – being stopped from doing so risks causing unrest, disobedience of the new curfews, and therefore accelerated spread of the disease by those who do not know that they are infected.
On a lighter note, business is booming for manufacturers of medical facemasks in mainland China, as millions of people scramble to get their hands on them.
It’s worth keeping an eye on this story – even as I was writing this post, the first case of human-to-human transmission was confirmed in Germany.