Larry Brilliant says he doesn’t have a crystal ball. But 14 years ago, Brilliant, the epidemiologist who helped eradicate smallpox, spoke to a TED audience and described what the next pandemic would look like. At the time, it sounded almost too horrible to take seriously. “A billion people would get sick,” he said. “As many as 165 million people would die. There would be a global recession and depression, and the cost to our economy of $1 to $3 trillion would be far worse for everyone than merely 100 million people dying, because so many more people would lose their jobs and their health care benefits, that the consequences are almost unthinkable.”
Now the unthinkable is here, and Brilliant, the Chairman of the board of Ending Pandemics, is sharing expertise with those on the front lines. We are a long way from 100 million deaths due to the novel coronavirus, but it has turned our world upside down. Brilliant is trying not to say “I told you so” too often. But he did tell us so, not only in talks and writings, but as the senior technical advisor for the pandemic horror film Contagion, now a top streaming selection for the homebound. Besides working with the World Health Organization in the effort to end smallpox, Brilliant, who is now 75, has fought flu, polio, and blindness; once led Google’s nonprofit wing, Google.org; co-founded the conferencing system the Well; and has traveled with the Grateful Dead.
We talked by phone on Tuesday. At the time, President Donald Trump’s response to the crisis had started to change from “no worries at all” to finally taking more significant steps to stem the pandemic. Brilliant lives in one of the six Bay Area counties where residents were ordered to shelter in place. When we began the conversation, he’d just gotten off the phone with someone he described as high government official, who asked Brilliant “How the fuck did we get here?” I wanted to hear how we’ll get out of here. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Steven Levy: I was in the room in 2006 when you gave that TED talk. Your wish was “Help Me Stop Pandemics.” You didn’t get your wish, did you?
Larry Brilliant: No, I didn’t get that wish at all, although the systems that I asked for have certainly been created and are being used. It’s very funny because we did a movie, Contagion—
We’re all watching that movie now.
People say Contagion is prescient. We just saw the science. The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn’t a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when. It’s really hard to get people to listen. I mean, Trump pushed out the admiral on the National Security Council, who was the only person at that level who’s responsible for pandemic defense. With him went his entire downline of employees and staff and relationships. And then Trump removed the [early warning] funding for countries around the world.
I’ve heard you talk about the significance that this is a “novel” virus.
It doesn’t mean a fictitious virus. It’s not like a novel or a novella.
It means it’s new. That there is no human being in the world that has immunity as a result of having had it before. That means it’s capable of infecting 7.8 billion of our brothers and sisters.
Since it’s novel, we’re still learning about it. Do you believe that if someone gets it and recovers, that person thereafter has immunity?
So I don’t see anything in this virus, even though it’s novel, [that contradicts that]. There are cases where people think that they’ve gotten it again, [but] that’s more likely to be a test failure than it is an actual reinfection. But there’s going to be tens of millions of us or hundreds of millions of us or more who will get this virus before it’s all over, and with large numbers like that, almost anything where you ask “Does this happen?” can happen. That doesn’t mean that it is of public health or epidemiological importance.
Is this the worst outbreak you’ve ever seen?
It’s the most dangerous pandemic in our lifetime.
We are being asked to do things, certainly, that never happened in my lifetime—stay in the house, stay 6 feet away from other people, don’t go to group gatherings. Are we getting the right advice?
Well, as you reach me, I’m pretending that I’m in a meditation retreat, but I’m actually being semi-quarantined in Marin County. Yes, this is very good advice. But did we get good advice from the president of the United States for the first 12 weeks? No. All we got were lies. Saying it’s fake, by saying this is a Democratic hoax. There are still people today who believe that, to their detriment. Speaking as a public health person, this is the most irresponsible act of an elected official that I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. But what you’re hearing now [to self-isolate, close schools, cancel events] is right. Is it going to protect us completely? Is it going to make the world safe forever? No. It’s a great thing because we want to spread out the disease over time.
Flatten the curve.
By slowing it down or flattening it, we’re not going to decrease the total number of cases, we’re going to postpone many cases, until we get a vaccine—which we will, because there’s nothing in the virology that makes me frightened that we won’t get a vaccine in 12 to 18 months. Eventually, we will get to the epidemiologist gold ring.