A specialized information network known as MIDAS, short for Models of Infectious Disease Agent Study, shows an avian flu outbreak could wreak serious havoc on people and economies around the world.
Since 2003, H5N1, better known as the avian flu virus, has spread to nine countries, mostly in Asia and Africa. Health experts fear the bird-borne virus could mutate and spread among humans. If that happens, new computer models suggest the outcome would not only be deadly, it could also cripple the global economy.
Joshua Epstein is a member of the computer simulation project. "We have computer scientists and epidemiologists and demographers and economists and very diverse teams of people contributing to aspects of the modeling,” he said. “And government agencies, for example: the transportation data needs to be obtained from the FAA and other agencies. So it involves big-time computing, big-time expertise and a lot of quite creative collaboration, not a small project.”
The project's objective is to develop strategies that would limit the worst outcome of a global epidemic. Warwick McKibbin, an international economics professor, says an uncontrolled outbreak of pandemic influenza in Southeast Asia would send shock waves around the world.
"When people get sick or die the labor supply changes. People don't go to work or they die. That changes the capacity of the economy to produce. It disrupts production, that's one serious shock. Another shock is that industry has to take some sort of action and that usually raises costs, depending on your industry it could raise costs a lot -- in the tourism industry for example," said McKibbin.
And there's a wide range of scenarios. McKibbin says the mildest foresees a nearly one percent drop in the world's gross domestic product.
"For the most severe, the ultra scenario, it was very dramatic. We had over $4.4 trillion wiped off the world economy. 140 million people killed. So the individual consequences were severe -- the death rates. But the economic consequences were also severe."
Hardest hit would be developing countries. Mckibbin says that's because some don't have the economic resources to prevent an outbreak or adequate health care to deal with the effects.
Epstein says the computer models should help scientists develop effective containment strategies. "Interrupting the flow of people from hemisphere to hemisphere is part of that approach. It buys time in which you can do other intelligent things like develop vaccines and engage in social distancing and other measures to reduce the spread."
Unfortunately, McKibbin says, most countries are not doing enough. "I don't think we are. We certainly are not spending enough in developing countries in public health systems for example. Because by the time this pandemic influenza breaks out from Asia, you can't stop it at the border. So what really matters is preventing it in the first place."
And Mckibbin says their findings show something else: that preventing a pandemic would cost far less than having to deal with its aftermath.