• A new study warns we’re likely to see another major pandemic within the next few decades.
  • New database of pandemic info used to calculate increased probability.
  • A major pandemic will likely wipe out human life within 12,000 years.

For much of the past century, the fear has been that a calamity like an asteroid strike, supernova blast, or environmental change would wipe out humanity. But new research, published by Duke Global Health Institute, is pointing to a much different demise for humans. The study, called Intensity and frequency of extreme novel epidemics and published in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, used almost four hundred years’ worth of newly assembled data to make some dire predictions [1].

The authors used the new database along with estimated rates of zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans) emerging because of environmental change caused by humans. “These effects of anthropogenic environmental change,” they warn, “may carry a high price,”

A New Database Paints a Picture

One of the reasons that there has been a distinct lack of research into the probability of another pandemic has been a lack of access to data, short observational records, and stationary analysis methods.

The conventional theory of extremes, like major pandemics, assumes that the process of event occurrence is stationary—where shifts in time don’t cause a change in the shape of the distribution.  But the authors found that pandemic data was nonstationary. While long term observations and analysis tools for nonstationary processes were available in other disciplines, global epidemiological information on the topic was “fragmented and virtually unexplored”.

The team addressed the problem, in part, by creating a new database containing information from four centuries of disease outbreaks, which they have made publicly available in the Zenodo repository along with the MATLAB code that analyzed it [3].  A snapshot of the database is shown below:

The database, which contains data from 182 historical epidemics, led the authors to conclude that while the rate of epidemics varies wildly over time, the tail of the probability distribution for epidemic intensity (defined as number of deaths, divided by global population and epidemic duration) slowly decays. The implication is that the probability of another extreme epidemic decreases slowly with epidemic intensity. However, this doesn’t mean that the…

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