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Was Covid-19 A Black Swan Event? – Forbes

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Black swans are unpredictable events that have major impacts. Covid-19 is not a Black swan.
According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a “Black Swan” event has three properties:

It seems many people think that the global Covid-19 pandemic is a Black Swan event. It’s not.
In fact, pandemics have been a part of human history from its beginning. The number of recorded epidemics is vast. Epidemics that affect a lot of people are less common, but certainly not rare.
The following figure shows a timeline of major epidemics since 1850, where major epidemics are defined as having killed half a million people or more. There are 16 of them.
Timeline of major epidemics since 1850. This plot shows the minimum number of deaths attributable to … [+] each epidemic and it’s duration.
The length of the bar shows how long each epidemic lasted. The height of the bar is a minimum estimate of how many people died.
What’s immediately clear is that there’s nothing special about Covid-19. Several epidemics have caused more damage. For instance, the “Third Plague,” a resurgence of the bubonic plague that caused the Black Death in the mid 1300’s, killed at least 12 million people at a time when the world’s population was only one sixth its current size. The worldwide 1918 influenza pandemic may have killed up to 100 million people in roughly the same amount of time that Covid-19 has killed somewhere between 5 million and 19 million out of a total population four times the size of that a century ago.
In fact, of the two ongoing pandemics — Covid-19 and HIV/AIDS — Covid-19 has been the least significant in terms of absolute number of fatalities. At its peak in 2004, HIV/AIDS was killing 1.7 million people per year. Even though Covid-19 has killed more than HIV/AIDS in one year, with vaccines and natural immunity the death toll from Covid-19 will likely not reach that of HIV/AIDS.
What’s more, there’s little evidence that epidemics are slowing down. Despite huge breakthroughs in science and medicine during the twentieth century, there were still eight pandemics (epidemics of global reach) killing 500,000 people each. Since the 1957 influenza pandemic, on average, one pandemic has appeared each decade through Covid-19, a trend that will probably continue through the twenty-first century.
One reason for this is that perhaps the most significant medical breakthrough in infectious disease control is the development of antibiotics. Arsphenamine, which is generally considered to be the first synthetic antibiotic, was discovered and used in treatment in 1907 by a German physician Paul Erlich. Those early arsenic-derived compounds were followed by penicillin in 1930 and sulfonamide antibiotics beginning in 1933. Antibiotics are estimated to have saved many millions of lives in the twentieth century. But, antibiotics are only effective against bacterial pathogens. The majority of major pandemics since 1800 have been caused by viruses.
Our greatest weapons against viruses are vaccines and antiviral therapeutics. But, unlike antibiotics, each of which may target a wide range of bacterial pathogens, the relationship between vaccines and viruses is highly specific — a different vaccine is needed for each virus. Indeed, for viruses that evolve quickly, like flu, we even need different vaccines for different strains of the virus. And vaccines take some time to develop. Despite the unprecedented speed at which Covid-19 vaccines were developed, a majority of the world still lacks access to these vaccines nearly two years after the pandemic started. A vaccine for HIV/AIDS has yet to be approved after 30 years of trying.
All this is to say that our primary medical breakthroughs are of limited use against emerging viral diseases, which are the majority of modern pandemics. So, if the future is anything like the past, we can expect a new pandemic disease about once a decade. The next one may appear in less than a decade, or it may materialize in two decades. But it will come.

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