A global pandemic is inevitable, yet we are woefully unprepared

summers wise Steve Castillo

The threat of a pandemic claiming millions of lives and devastating economies around the world is as serious as the potential perils of global climate change, renowned economist Larry Summers told a Stanford audience during a recent visit to campus.

The world is taking dramatic and costly steps to prevent the calamitous impact of climate change on the economies and national security of most countries. Yet preparations for a worldwide pandemic on the scale of the 1918 flu are vastly underfunded and ill-formed.

“My biggest fear is that the world is way short of focus on all the issues associated with pandemic,” said Summers, former treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and Harvard president emeritus, who in recent years has focused on the economics of global health care.

“We are talking about something that could kill surely tens of millions and perhaps 100 million people, and the Stanford football program is substantially more expensive than the WHO budget for pandemic flu,” he said. “It’s just crazy that we are so underinvested and underprepared.”

Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard, also served as director of the White House National Economic Council in the Obama administration. He was in conversation with Stanford Health Policy’s Paul Wise for the March 8 event co-sponsored by the Stanford Institute of Economic Policy Research for faculty and students.



The World Health Organization budget for outbreaks and crisis response has been reduced by nearly 50 percent from 2012 to 2015. Some global health experts blame these cuts in part for its slow response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the ongoing Zika crisis in Brazil.

In Brazil, Zika has been linked to a spike in cases of microcephaly, a birth defect marked by small head size and underdeveloped brains. Brazil has confirmed more than 640 cases of microcephaly and is investigating an additional 4,200 suspected cases. Puerto Rico is now preparing for an expected outbreak there.

Summers said the mortality rate from the great flu pandemic was far greater than the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which killed some 11,300 people mostly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Some 50 million people died worldwide during the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.

‘I don’t want to minimize in any way the significance of Ebola, but there are things to worry about that are vastly larger,” said Summers, who gave the keynote address for the January unveiling of the National Academy of Medicine’s report on global health risks.

That report by the Commission on a Global Health Risks Framework for the Future found that, compared with other major threats to global security, the world has “grossly underinvested” in efforts to prevent and prepare for the spread of infectious diseases. The commissioners — some 250 independent experts in health, governance and research and development — estimate $60 billion in annualized expected losses from pandemics.

“Pandemics cause devastation to human lives and livelihoods much as do wars, financial crises and climate change,” the report said. “Pandemic prevention and response, therefore, should be treated as an essential tenet of both national and global security — not just a matter of health.”

Summers estimates that pandemic flu risk is in the same range of global climate change in terms of expected costs over the next century. Yet a potential pandemic is getting only 2 percent of the attention and resources that global climate change has today.


Summers also chaired the Lancet Commission on Investing in Health, an independent group of 25 leading economists and global health experts from around the world. Their landmark report, Global Health 2035, provides a specific roadmap for this achieving “a grand convergence” in health within our lifetimes. Ahead of the U.N. General Assembly last fall, Summers led a joint declaration together with economists from 44 countries calling on world leaders to prioritize investments in health.

Wise, in the Department of Pediatrics at Stanford and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, asked Summers how one plans for pandemics when faced with so many failed governments and conflicts around the world.

“One of the central challenges that I worry about a lot in the deliberations of pandemic control is that many of the (regions) of greatest concern are characterized by chronic political instability, conflict and very weak governance,” said Wise, who for more than 30 years has been traveling to rural Guatemala to provide medical care to children there for his Children in Crisis project.

Summers said the world has been fortunate that there are so many brave and devoted medical workers who are trained to go into these conflict regions to try and contain outbreaks.

“But I think it would be disingenuous of me to say that you can solve these problems without in some way containing the failed state,” he said.

Wise then asked Summers what sort of advice he would give to the Stanford students who were trying to decide between a career in which one might use economics to make a fortune on Wall Street, or use economics for the greater good.

“I have always believed that you can count — and you can care,” Summers said. “There is nothing about counting and using numbers and analyzing the math that means you don’t care in a moral way.”

When a physician works with a patient and saves her life, he said, that has a profound and direct impact on both the patient and physician. But working on a vaccination program that has the potential of saving thousands of lives one day comes with delayed gratification.

“But the impact of making the world a better place and enabling people to survive and avoid grieving the loss of of a family member is as great — or greater,” he said.


paul and summers