Last Week Tonight With John Oliver broadcast its season premiere on Sunday, returning after it last aired just days after the presidential election. While a lot has happened since then —including the Covid-19 vaccine rollout, the Wall Street’s Gamestop rollercoaster and Donald Trump’s impeachment trial culminating in an acquittal — for his main story he discussed the possibility of another pandemic and how to avoid it.
“Now might be the most important time to talk about this because scientists attempted to warn us about the ‘next’ pandemic long before the current one hit, and we didn’t really listen,” he emphasized, illustrating his point with a 60 Minutes clip from 17 years ago that aired shortly after the SARS epidemic was contained. In it, a scientist warned of his concern that a more lethal virus would emerge “that moves from one part of the planet to another, wiping out people as it moves along,” adding, “That’s something to be keeping you awake at night.”
As Oliver notes, the number of infectious disease outbreaks have “increased significantly since 1980,” including SARS, H1N1, Ebola, MERS, Zika and the current Covid-19 pandemic.
“The truth is if we’re not very careful, the next pandemic could well be even worse,” Oliver said before playing a clip from an infectious disease expert who said there are viruses circulating in wildlife that kill 60 to 70 of those they infect and that the current Covid-19 virus “is not by any stretch of the imagination the worst that Mother Nature has to offer us.”
Oliver outlined where specific infectious diseases come from, why they’re on the rise and what we can do to limit them. He noted that the current pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus originated in animals before infecting humans and cited research estimating that up to 75 percent of new or emerging infectious diseases spread in this way. He also cited research that estimates there are 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses in mammals and birds that have the ability to infect humans.
While many species are linked to infectious diseases, he notes that bats are one of the biggest vectors. However, the solution is not to eliminate species, which would disrupt the world’s ecosystem. He further discussed how deforestation, urbanization and mining are contributing to “erasing the buffer between civilization and wildlife,” that humans increase the chance to spread diseases by introducing exotic wildlife into their homes and lives, and the risks involved in some “wet markets,” where in some locations animals from different locales may be caged in close proximity and could transfer diseases to humans who shop in the markets. He noted that experts have also connected state and agricultural fairs and factory farms as potential sources for multiple infectious disease outbreaks.
“When you put this all together, it does seem like we’re actively trying to start pandemics,” he said.
He acknowledged the most effective way to decrease the threat of future pandemics would be to eliminate and end all the practices he outlined, “But obviously none of those are going to happen,” he said, adding “Draconian measures are just not going to work here.”
“Which is not to say we shouldn’t try to reduce harmful practices, because we clearly should,” he added. “Many health experts argue for what’s called a ‘one health perspective’ where we recognize that the health of humans, animals and our environment are all interconnected and take that into account when making decisions on everything, from environmental regulations to urban planning.”
He noted smaller solutions can aid in limiting outbreaks. Oliver pointed out Thailand’s success at preventing outbreaks via a phone app where farmers can “submit abnormal health events in real time” as a video of the app in action explained, which “could inform broader public policy,” Oliver said.
“There will be thousands of small ideas like that that could end up making a real difference,” Oliver explained. He urged viewers to not be “complacent” as the pandemic abates.
“So for the good of future generations — and in all likelihood, us in a few years’ time — we really need to remember the way we feel right now and invest accordingly,” he said. “‘Cause the truth is you never know where the next pandemic is going to come from.”