The H1N1 virus has packed less of a pandemic punch than initially feared, but it has uncovered some hard truths about our readiness—or lack thereof—for coping with a more deadly pathogen. Despite vast medical advances since the 1918 influenza epidemic, a novel, highly contagious illness could still devastate populations and upend social, economic, political and legal structures the globe over.
A new virulent strain—of flu or any other virus—could kill off millions, even those who appear to be in their prime, says Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. In addition, many nations would likely close borders, an action that would be accompanied by discrimination against individuals and recrimination among governments. International trade and commerce would drop, which would have “enormous financial implications,” says Gostin, who estimates a 3 to 5 percent drop in global GDP (amounting to a loss of $1.8 trillion to $3 trillion). This cycle of instability and contagion could last “on the order of years,” he notes, as subsequent waves of an illness arrive with changing seasons.