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Lord Martin Rees: Pandemics and Catastrophic Risk

Lord Rees
Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal

Scientists for Labour (SfL) was extremely pleased to welcome Lord Martin Rees earlier this month for an evening ‘in conversation’ with our chair, Ben Fernando, on the topic of Pandemics and Catastrophic Risk. It is difficult to find a more accomplished British scientist than Lord Martin Rees, he is the Astronomer Royal, a post held since 1999, he has been the president of both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, he was the Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and is currently an emeritus professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics. Beyond his interest in cosmology, Lord Rees has an interest in what he calls ‘long-termism’, the catastrophic and existential risks faced by humanity. His previous book, “Our Final Century” explores the likelihood of humanity surviving to see the year 2100. His latest release, “On the future: prospects for humanity” further addresses the risks we face, and the changes we must make if we are to survive.

Lord Rees began his opening remarks by emphasising that the 21st century is the first century in which a singular species has the ability to determine the future of the entire planet. The threats which humanity poses to the earth can be further divided into ‘collective threats’ which are driven by the actions of the many, such as climate change; or threats from a single empowered individual such as a nuclear attack or a cyber-attack. Either way, the coming century is likely to be a bumpy ride.

Addressing the current pandemic, Lord Rees points out that this is not unexpected. Many scientists have warned of a coming pandemic for many years, it is considered likely for a large outbreak to occur once every ten years. This is not the first large scale pandemic and will not be the last. What was unexpected, however, is the form that this pandemic has taken with most predicting some form of flu outbreak. As a result, the UK only had preparedness schemes in place for an outbreak of flu, so while it is fair to say this outbreak is unfamiliar, it is not improbable.

Following this opening statement, Lord Rees then fielded questions. The first set of questions were prepared in advance by SfL, then we opened the floor for the audience to ask any questions which had arisen during the talk.

(Responses have been summarised and may be paraphrased; therefore, they should not be read as direct quotations)

Q: Where would you draw the line between catastrophic risk and existential risk?

A: Existential threats are threats which threaten the entire survival of the human species, whereas catastrophic risks have the potential to cause very large impacts but not necessarily to the same scale. In the specific case of pandemics, it is extremely likely due to the increase in air travel that any pandemic will become global. Under current conditions this would not be considered an existential risk. However, if pandemics occur at an increasing rate the compounding effect to public health and the world economy could increase the risk level such that global pandemics become a very real existential risk.

Q: Where would the current pandemic lie on a graph of seriousness against likelihood?

A: It is likely in the sense that a pandemic is expected every ten to twenty years, for example SARS and flu outbreaks of the best few decades. The current virus is extremely transmissible which has been compounded by the increased air travel making widespread transmission of the virus inevitable. The growth of the world’s mega cities (such as Mumbai or Lagos) make such events in the future even more deadly.

In terms of the best ways to make outbreaks less likely, and our response more effective, we need to ‘beef up’ the world health organisation (WHO), thereby empowering early detection of new diseases, especially by farmers or in wet markets. We must endeavour to avoid complacency after this pandemic and ensure lessons are learned – particularly the importance of pandemic preparedness. In the world of politics, politicians are incentivised to focus on short term local problems within the time-span of an election cycle, this makes solving long term global problems (such as pandemics or climate change) in an effective manner difficult.

Q: Is the line between man-made threats and natural threats becoming blurred?

A: Yes, this line is indeed becoming blurred; and furthermore, some natural threats which were not previously deadly have now become so. For example, solar flares are natural occurrences which would have had extremely minimal impact on humanity a hundred years ago but now have the potential to cripple our entire electrical grid which could certainly be catastrophic. As another example, earthquakes are now also far more deadly than they used to be due to the continuing development of large cities and increasing population densities. Again, the risk of pandemics is also increased simply due to the growing global population and interconnectedness of modern society. In addition, we now have far higher public health standards. In the 14th century a death rate of 1% would be unremarkable, but today would cripple healthcare capacity and overburden hospitals.

Q: Comparisons are being drawn between the current pandemic and world war two, are these comparisons fair?

A: I do not see WW2 as a particularly good comparison; however, it is reasonable that this is in our mind with the 75th anniversary of VE day. As NHS workers and a great many others make huge personal sacrifice for the greater good there are some fair analogies to be drawn. There is a sense of the so called ‘blitz spirit’ and us all being in this together, however this crisis has in fact exposed the huge class divide still present in the country. As the rich isolate in their large houses with grounds and gardens, many find themselves cooped up in crowded tower blocks. Furthermore, higher paid jobs are more likely to be able to allow remote working and are also likely to be some of the last to return. Many lower paid jobs are continuing to put employees at risk or have had large scale redundancies or furloughing. Hopefully, we will find a route forward after this crisis to allow this gap to narrow.

Q: Has the government response been hampered by a misunderstanding of the science?

A: To be fair to the government they had to learn as they went along. Although an outbreak was expected no one fully knew what was coming and this was a new virus. In retrospect it is easy to see that the response was too cautious and there should have been more aggressive action taken much earlier. But no one knew this at the time and the government was receiving expert advice from the scientific advice group for emergencies (SAGE) which appeared to be followed (however it is hard to know the extent to which it was followed as this advice is not published).

It is a more general problem that not all MPs and the public more widely do not understand much of the science. It would be ideal if all people were informed enough to make decisions on these issues although this may not be fully realistic. Politicians also have other issues such as social and economic factors to consider rather than purely subject specialism. It would be advantageous for the public to understand enough to at least be able to see past bogus statistics. We should all be thankful for the BBC and some newspapers for their responsible use of data leading to higher quality debate.

Q (from the audience): Memory is short in politics, how to we measure and prepare against the risk of future pandemics?

A: Hopefully, there will be more respect for the impact a serious outbreak can have. As said previously, politicians focus on the short term, to try to combat this Lord John Bird introduced a bill to force MPs to consider the impact on future generations in all future proposed bills.

The climate crisis is a slow-motion version of the pandemic. It is harder still to keep the climate crisis at the forefront of people’s minds, the distant consequences make it hard for people to care. The treasury maintains a ‘green book’ which determines the process for appraisal and evaluation of all projects and policies – this is insufficient for making decisions considering climate impacts. Political change requires public engagement, so it is important that, as scientists, we keep campaigning and demonstrating.

Q (from the audience): Should there have been a robust plan in place to prevent downturn from a more general crisis?

A: Again, the only precautions in place were the influenza outbreak preparedness plans. Studies were made, from which severe conclusions were drawn, but very little action was ever taken. Even less effort was spent on coronaviruses despite SARS being caused by a coronavirus. It is known that it is not possible to develop a vaccine rapidly, therefore it is likely that any outbreak would be serious despite the level of preparedness. However, increased preparedness could only help mitigate the impact. Manufacturing supply chains are becoming so long that they are not robust to crises of this magnitude. We should learn that it is worth paying more for the production of items with more robust supply chains.

In summary, we should have learned more but it is impossible to be fully prepared.

Q (from the audience): Should the opposition be given access to the full SAGE advice, should this be published publicly? What do you make of the independent SAGE which was set up recently?

A: Full SAGE advice should certainly be made available to the opposition. Alongside this, abbreviated minutes should also be made available to the public. The public should be able to assess how honest the government are being when they say they are ‘following the science’. It is important to be able to assess which government actions were based on hard scientific evidence, and which were based on more spurious conjecture.

If the independent SAGE a good thing is currently hard to tell. There is a chance it may attract people with strident or outspoken opinions. It is unclear at the moment if this will be a positive, but we must keep an open mind.

Q (from the audience): Is this an opportunity for big societal change?

A: Certainly, we have been made aware of our vulnerability. It is suspected that we will not fully return to the world we lived in before. We have seen how many of us can effectively work from home, and many people may wish to avoid unnecessary commutes in the future. It is also likely air travel will not return to the same levels we have previously seen. It is likely to be smaller scale and more expensive, especially now we have all seen how effective meeting online can be. This is likely to lead to fewer in person conferences. It is likely that health checks in airports will become standard practice, combined with the already lengthy security checks this may further deter air travel.

Q (from the audience): How do you think the public perception of science will change as a result of the pandemic? Do you think that there is a risk science may become overly politicised such as in the US?

A: Hopefully, the UK never devolves to the level of US politics. It is especially concerning when basically all scientists vote for one party and the other party has an unhealthy distrust of science. Social media gives more extreme views more direct access to an audience where in the past these views would have been softened by a journalist or filtered out entirely.

Most people are now aware that response to this kind of crisis require extreme subject specialism. It is an amazing challenge for which no one can deny we need expert guidance. It is expected, therefore, that overall public trust in science and experts will rise after this crisis.

Q (from the audience): What other big gaps in preparedness are there?

A: Many more health issues, likely related to infectious diseases within developing countries due to lack of resources directed here. We need to focus our effort internationally, as an outbreak in a place such as Mumbai would be disastrous. This area is particularly under-resourced due to the perceived lack of profitability by large pharmaceutical companies. The risk disparity between rich and poor countries is allegorical to the risk disparity between the rich and poor sections of UK society.

Q (final question from SfL): SfL have been working hard to produce daily briefings and reports during this crisis via our large recruitment of volunteers. What is the best partisan response? Should we support the government in its efforts?

A: You should not simply support the government all the way. There is already mounting tension between employers who want workers to return to work and the trade unions who wish to protect the health of their workers, Labour must always side with the workers. We should be mindful of needier citizens and move to encourage wage equality. Transport and care work need to be regarded as the essential work they are and, as consequence, be paid more highly. It is important for Labour and its supporters to emphasise the importance of socially critical work (such as health and social care) which is often undervalued. Labour need to invest in services by raising taxation on the wealthy, there is much more to learn from the Scandinavian countries than the US. It is important to ensure the public takes scientists seriously on matters of the environment and health

SfL thanks Lord Rees for his time and such an engaging talk.

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