Will there be another pandemic in our lifetime? Here’s what our numbers say

December 12 2022

COVID-19 was certainly unprecedented. But does that mean we won’t see another pandemic like it again? Experts on our epidemiology team, Nita Madhav, Ben Oppenheim, and Nicole Stephenson, have been grappling with that question for years. Their team has developed sophisticated models with an eye toward quantifying the likelihood of another pandemic, as well as the public health and economic impacts of future outbreaks.

That’s why our team participated in TEDEd’s “Will there be another pandemic in your lifetime?” project. TEDEd’s snappy data visualization approach is an engaging way to demonstrate how likely we are to go through something like COVID-19 again (spoiler: it’s pretty likely—see for yourself).

Pandemic risk, explained

Nita, Ben, Nicole and their team started with an analysis of historical data regarding epidemiological events around the world to estimate the frequency and severity of epidemics caused by disease spillover from animals to humans. The numbers showed that both are steadily increasing.

Where the team really separated itself from other projections was the way they fused epidemiological and catastrophe modeling to answer the big question. Drawing on catalogs of hundreds of thousands of simulations, they estimated the probability of a COVID-19-level pandemic event to be around 2.5-3.3% for a given year. As the video explains, even a conservative 2% annual probability played out over a lifetime equals a staggering 78% chance we could live through a COVID-19-level pandemic in the next 75 years!

Knowledge is power when it comes to pathogens

This is worrying—but we have the power to change the equation on preparedness. Weather forecasts are one of our favorite analogies for describing biosecurity’s potential. Tools like our epidemic tracker, risk assessment models, and testing programs are bringing together a foundation of data to give the world a “weather map” for biological threats. 

Achieving a real-time pathogen forecast would deliver the most important advantage: early warning. With the ability to see risks on the horizon and make targeted responses to contain them, maybe COVID-19 would be a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. 

For more on using our epidemiological tracking and modeling capabilities to help secure public health, please get in touch!

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