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MIT Technology Review

Pandemics through the decades

A viral disease has a way of reminding us that technology can’t help us if it’s not paired with human cooperation.

April 15, 2020
June 1956

June 1956

From “The First Great Epidemic of History”: Since the beginning of recorded history the people of this world have been molested by a long series of awesome epidemics, several of which have brought mankind dangerously close to extinction. The worst of them all is generally thought to have been the so-called Black Death, which ravaged the known world during most of the second half of the Fourteenth Century. Even more extensive in scope than the Black Death was an epidemic, or pandemic, which occurred nearly 600 years later. This was the influenza outbreak of the Twentieth Century, which began in Europe in May or June of 1918 and in three waves traveled literally throughout the world. It is probable, in fact, that the total carnage from this recent epidemic exceeded that of the Black Death.

October 1995 cover

October 1995

From “Thinking Like a Virus”: Why did it take less than two weeks to find the mutant coronavirus responsible for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, while it took the better part of three years to find HIV? There are many reasons—including better technology and a less elusive viral target—but don’t discount the unprecedented level of worldwide communication among SARS researchers.

The success of a global research network in identifying the pathogen is an example of the huge payoff that can result when researchers put aside visions of patents and glory for their individual laboratories and let their work behave more like, well, a virus. After all, the hallmark of an opportunistic virus like the one that causes SARS is its ability to spread quickly. Those mounting a response need to disseminate their information and innovation just as rapidly.

July 2003 cover

July/August 2003

From “Controlling Infectious Diseases”: These are global problems transcending political and national boundaries. An infection may come to light anywhere in the world and span continents within days or weeks. Recognizing as much, several expert groups have concluded that a surveillance system to spot emerging infections—an “early warning system”—is an essential first line of defense. But so far we aren’t even close to having such a system … As of now, humanity remains vulnerable to a staggering array of infections. We have no unified system for global surveillance, let alone one for response. Some of us have been paralyzed by complacency—thinking, wrongly, that the threat of infectious diseases is past. Others have been equally paralyzed by defeatism, perhaps feeling that it is too difficult to build the systems needed to protect us. But even imperfect systems are better than none at all.