Larry Brilliant says you might as well forget about herd immunity, but with a speedy, deft brand of combat against new infections, well, maybe-just-maybe, we could resume a normal-ish life soon.
Since being part of the team that eradicated smallpox in India in the 1970s, the renowned epidemiologist, technologist, and philanthropist has devoted a good bit of his career to pandemic response, prevention, and awareness.
“I got to see the last case of killer smallpox in the world. There’s nothing that makes you feel more the blessing and the honor of working in a program like that [working with the WHO in India to reform its approach from within] than to know that something that horrible no longer exists.”
— Dr. Larry Brilliant
Likened to the Forrest Gump of the humanitarian left — blending a celestial medical expertise that placed him in high demand, with a radical activist schedule that seemed to make him ubiquitous — Brilliant traversed quite a path, cutting a very wide swath, to say the least.
He went from meeting future Apple founder Steve Jobs in India, to getting tapped by Google as the first leader of their nonprofit, Google.org, to linking with the Grateful Dead and co-founding a charitable precursor to today’s social networks called The WELL, to his activism on civil rights and against the Vietnam War, to delivering a baby on Alcatraz Island in a government standoff that revolved around a clash over the rights of prisoners and Native Americans…
To establishing another organization dedicated to restoring sight to over three million indigent blind, to working with four different presidents…
From flower-child medical titan — M.D., MPH, epidemiologist, professor, WHO veteran, and author of the aptly titled, “Sometimes Brilliant,” — to legitimate and well-deserved Pope-like status and repute.
WHOEVER HEARD OF IT???
Perhaps most clearly reflected in his favorite Jerry Garcia overview, worded loosely this way:
‘Sometimes the light is all shining on me. Other times, I can barely see…Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been…Amen.’
As founder and CEO of Pandefense Advisory, an interdisciplinary network of world-class experts and professionals urgently engaged in pandemic response, Brilliant authored this latest in a series of iterations that began in 2005, amidst the avian flu outbreak.
Dr. Brilliant and Peter Schwartz, a strategic futurist and cofounder of Global Business Network, convened dozens of leading scientists, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and executives to imagine the trajectory and consequences of a global pandemic in an unsuspecting and unprepared world.
Pre-COVID Brilliant, along with many of his peers, played the modern-day Cassandra(s) of Greek mythology, sounding the alarm on pandemics in op-eds, a widely-viewed TED talk, and the tragically prophetic horror movie, “Contagion,” for which he was a consultant and senior technical advisor.
Largely, deaf ears were turned; accurate prophecies met with disbelief and ambivalence.
Fifteen years ago, Brilliant described what the next pandemic would look like.
At the time, it sounded almost too horrid 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.”
We are a long way from 100 million deaths, thank God, but Brilliant told us so.
Listen to Brilliant in snippets from his TED2006 talk entitled, “My wish: Help me stop pandemics.”
“The key to eradicating smallpox was early detection, early response. I’m going to ask you to repeat that: early detection, early response. Can you say that?”
“Smallpox was the worst disease in history. It killed more people than all the wars in history. In the last century, it killed 500 million people.”
“We declared smallpox eradicated in 1980.”
“It was the largest campaign in United Nations history, until the Iraq war.
150,000 people from all over the world — doctors of every race, religion, culture and nation, who fought side by side, brothers and sisters, with each other, not against each other, in a common cause to make the world better.”
This is the most important slide that I’ve ever seen in public health, [Sovereigns killed by smallpox] because it shows you to be the richest and the strongest, and to be kings and queens of the world, did not protect you from dying of smallpox.
Never can you doubt that we are all in this together.”
Never can you doubt that we are all in this together.
In viewing the pandemic and its global tentacles more than a year later, Brilliant thinks we got the epidemiology right, but is quick to detail what was missed.
“Here are the things we didn’t get right:
We expected a respiratory disease that killed because it created pneumonia. But this disease is systemic.
It causes long-haul symptoms, it goes from nose to toes — you lose your sense of smell and your toes get swollen.
In some cases, it increases the possibility of stroke. And so on.
The second thing I didn’t anticipate was a totally AWOL government that politicized, dismissed, minimized the disease that was the greatest medical challenge of our lifetimes.
A high percentage of the half-million souls that have been lost would not have been lost with a competent government.”
Ever the glass-half-full kind of guy, he added, “And on the brighter side, I wouldn’t have ever expected that we would have a vaccine so quick that’s so good.”
But as is his wont, Brilliant hastens to underscore a deeply-embedded altruistic dedication to humanity and what it all means.
“This pandemic clearly makes us rethink everything…
The fundamental unfairness of always giving the short end of the stick to the African American community, in medical care, public health, and economics — that is our historic cross to bear.
At one point in time, 80 percent of those hospitalized with COVID in Georgia were African Americans.
And every country has a similar story.
When Singapore was doing so well and thinking, ‘Well, we don’t have any cases,’ they forgot about their immigrant community packed in close quarters.
And they had to go back and rethink everything about how they were treating immigrants.
The pandemic supposes and exacerbates the trends of the centrifugal forces in the world, the winners and losers.
And we have to stop and think, who are we as a people?”
He notes the dichotomous underpinnings of a worldwide vaccine: humanity and survival.
“It is the ultimate act of selfishness to make sure that everybody in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe is vaccinated.
And it’s the ultimate act of altruism.”
Spoken like someone whose work in the field — hanging with Jerry Garcia, dropping acid with Wavy Gravy and eradicating smallpox in India — was and still is at 76, more impactful, profound and meaningful than the Seven Wonders of the World.
[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in April 2021.]