CURVED BALLS: How a combination of cynicism and sovereign insolvency could wipe out the human race.

Matt Damon in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Contagion’

This Autumn, the movie ‘Contagion’ has been a huge hit in the United States. During September, it grossed almost three times that of any other feature. Clearly, people are worried about the rapid spread of a pandemic (the subject of the film) but is this just another production proving yet again that, if there’s one thing we love, it’s scaring ourselves to death?

Over the years I’ve been a scathing critic of the never-ending stream of disaster films. Some of them were very good, some half-baked hokum, but all of them have a deadening effect in the end: that’s to say, people spend three months obsessed with the thesis, and then, when it doesn’t happen within two years or so, tend to reject the whole idea as fanciful.

This makes life much easier for the curved ball…..the unexpected happens, takes off, and throws every projection on the planet out of the window.

Certainly, the pandemic threat is real enough. But the aftermath of HNV1 Avian Flu seemed to pour scorn on it: drug companies and even leading politicians across three continents were shown to have done very nicely thank you out of sales and profits….while other more serious diseases were neglected. However, whether any or all of the drugco/deliberate scare conspiracy theories are true or not, those people not making tons of  dosh out of such things deserve an audience. Virus hunter Ian Lipkin (who was the technical consultant on Contagion) is one such person. He’s close to being the world’s leading virologist, and you wouldn’t want to have lunch with him: it might end in acute indigestion.

“We’re being asked to analyse 10,000 [virus] samples a year,” Dr. Lipkin says, “We’ve discovered at least 400 new viruses since I came to Columbia in 2002, and the process is accelerating.” That’s a lot of ways to die, but when you look behind Lipkin’s pronouncements, the facts do tend to support him. Globally, infectious diseases are a leading cause of death, accounting for a quarter to a third of the estimated 55-60 million deaths occurring anually.

At least 30 previously unknown disease agents have been identified since 1973, including HIV, Ebola, hepatitis C, and Nipah virus, for which no cures are available. But not all of the killers are new. They can mutate, alter their DNA, and then fox existing drugs completely. Twenty well-known diseases–including tuberculosis (TB), malaria, and cholera–have reemerged or spread geographically since 1973, usually in more virulent and drug-resistant forms.

Fadcinatingly, three factors seem to lie behind the mutation, innovation and acceleration in viral infections: the amount we travel, the growing interest of humans everywhere in more ‘exotic’ types of food, and inter-species ‘jumping’. Did you know, for instance, that the doubling of US food imports over the last five years (a staggering statistic in itself) is a key factor contributing to tens of millions of foodborne illnesses in America? It’s resulted in 95,000 deaths in the States over the last 30 years….a doubling of the trend.

Air travel and multinational business is a huge factor. In 1999 for example, doctors noticed a cluster of cases of encephalitis around New York City. They shipped blood from their patients to Dr. Lipkin, who was then at the University of California. Analysing the genetic material, he and his colleagues concluded that the encephalitis had been caused by West Nile virus. It was the first time the virus had been identified in the Western Hemisphere. Since Dr. Lipkin made the discovery, West Nile virus has spread across the continental United States.

Just this year, a new strain of Ebola virus was found in a bat in Spain — the first time this fatal virus has been carried beyond Black Africa; a new hepatitis virus has broken out in British dogs; and Lipkin’s team had, by the end of September, been working frantically to identify the DNA of 130 new viruses.

Better DNA knowledge has played a big part in the Lipkin centre’s success, but what worries researchers most is species-jumping. More than three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases today originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans. As suburban areas penetrate into formerly wild countryside, the incidence of contact between wild and domesticated animals has sky-rocketed. And in that real context, viruses are proving they will attack pretty much anything…or anyone. The danger, too, is that in the original animal host, many destructive diseases must nevertheless keep the host alive, or they will die. But when jumping is achieved, any restraint the virus needed is reduced: its goal becomes one of reproduction, rather than continuing survival. And at the end of that road is a rapid-expansion pandemic.

America’s National Intelligence Council produced an estimate recently of the gravity of the threat to US interests. It examined the most lethal diseases globally and by region, and developed alternative scenarios about their future course. Now of course, the NIC is a quasi-military branch of the Intelligence community in the States, so much of what’s in there tends to suggest (as you’d expect) that the threat is real and present and needs more Congressional dollars right now. Like so many such documents, it is an argument in search of a budget.

But here’s the intriguing thing: ironically, while the NIC study projects optimistic, median and pessimistic scenarios, it hasn’t covered the curved ball outlook. Forward planners very rarely do, for the simple reason that this is the scary bit no amount of money or expertise could fix, or predict.

A pandemic curved ball has already been created by globalism and leisure travel. A collapse of the global finance system, however, could easily become the catalyst for the batsman Homo sapiens missing the curved ball entirely.

Ian Lipkin already says that the US public health system “is underfinanced and overwhelmed”. My recent experiences with the NHS, and access to data about it, would suggest to me that the British system is in a similar condition. And we are making far more drastic cuts in the local ancillary services that plug into the NHS, providing early warnings about infection, than the Americans are.


“We can and must reduce the several months required to create and test a vaccine before beginning large-scale production and distribution,” Lipkin adds. But Government insolvency and the slow hand of bureaucracy will be standing in the way of that.

Medics around the world seem unable to agree on much, but one thing producing virtual unanimity is the acceptance that better coordination is needed between local, federal and international agencies when it comes to pandemics. Civil servants have never been any good at this: they’re usually too busy protecting their own turf to suggest anything more efficient…and public sector trade unions will of course oppose anything that means job losses.


Were I a simple propagandist, it would be very simple at this point to join up the dots running throughout the above piece, and highlight what the end result of amoral privilege always is: disaster.

That’s to say, link up media sensationalism, drugco hype, food crazes, globalism, urban sprawl, government overspending, vote-centric political spinelessness, greedy civil servants, braindead Trade Unions, and risk-mad bankers to reach a conclusion called ‘species self-destruction’. But it would be both stretching the elasticity of the argument, and melodramatic: the fact is that technology increases travel, travel produces new food experiences, and economic development produces population growth which, in turn, increases our exposure to ‘wild’ viruses.

The irony of this particular instance of curved ball potential is that, if it came to pass, it would for some time to come solve the problem that helped cause it: overpopulation.

I have seen all the smart projections, and read the assertive theories of population ‘experts’ suggesting that increased economic wealth acts as a brake on population growth, because it produces smaller families. I don’t buy it: it is simply another example of narrow extrapolation that fails to take into account variations from the average, and important elements within social anthropology.

An increasingly eroded culture in Britain, for example, has seen a major population spurt….accelerated by some immigrants whose large families are based on cultural and even religious traditions. These do not die out overnight. In China, the ‘one child’ Beijing policy has not only proved very hard to enforce, the slowdown in the last decade among wealthier Chinese has been hyped out of all proportion to its effect: 93% of Chinese have an income so small, they pay no tax at all. Their familial habits remain the same – central policy has curbed them, but we are talking well over a billion fecund people here. The same trends are pointed out in India…..and the same ‘tiny minority’ reality applies. Around the world, militant Islam is actively encouraging large families, as the best long-term attack on the infidel.

The very wealth-inequity model of capitalism that is now in the acendancy will, if we persist in ignoring its flaws, screw all the projections about reduced population growth, because it is only the classic 6-8% who really benefit from growth. Whether we like it or not, ignorant despair breeds children, and lots of them.

In short, a curved-ball pandemic is exactly what we need. And if it kills all of us, it may be exactly what the planet needs – I don’t know for sure: that’s an infinite and unwinnably mutual-trashing bunfight I don’t want to get into.

Learn more about the aims of The Slog here.

If you enjoyed this, you may also like Why Beijing found Sarkozy’s bonds hard-sell funny.

33 thoughts on “CURVED BALLS: How a combination of cynicism and sovereign insolvency could wipe out the human race.

  1. I think hhis bit isn’t quite right:in the original animal host, many destructive diseases must nevertheless keep the host alive, or they will die. But when jumping is achieved, any restraint the virus needed is reduced: its goal becomes one of reproduction, rather than continuing survival. And at the end of that road is a rapid-expansion pandemic”.

    The virus has no goal; it has no brain, it just reproduces as fast as it can whenever it can, but its host species has developed ways for some individuals to stay alive whilst carrying the virus. A new host lacks those defences.

    China has proved a good spot for interspecies migration of pig and chicken viruses to humans because of the proximity of these species to humans in rural China. This to a great extent accounts for the perceived valetudinarianism of the Chinese – China really is an unhealthy place from the virus point of view.


  2. The problem is that conventional approaches aren’t really working. The Government spent millions on anti-viral medication for flu when the evidence is that they many do more harm than good,
    The evidence for the vaccination of the elderly against flu is poor to say the least (according to Cochrane).I thought the Nordic Cochrane review questioning the relevance of breast cancer screening was bang on the money. We need to be aware of the fact that many therapies used by the NHS have a poor evidence base.


  3. AC-B
    You are absolutely right, viruses don’t have brains. Neither do human proteins: but both ACT as if they did.
    This seeming impossibility continues to puzzle geneticists…and neuroscientists.
    The empirical research done by Lipkin’s lot does show mutation and acceleration after a species jump. Go figure.


  4. It would be supremely ironic if these control junkie Eurocrats win that fight but find there are no people for them to govern…
    Not amusing but would show that someone/thing has a sense of the absurd!


  5. The world would be better of without us, I just hope the last of our species can shut down a atomic power reactor. A poisonous planet would be a sad legacy.


  6. IMO the solution to pandemics (and also global warming…sorry, climate change) is not to stop people doing things, as the Left always love to do because it satisfies their obsession for control and societal manipulation.
    No, it is R&D, science and innovation. In the case of population growth, to find ways of reducing national/global welfare systems which fund irresponsible behaviour. The very idea that 15yo girls can choose to have babies without any means of supporting them, simply because they want one and then expect the State (ie the rest of us) to give them welfare, is unaffordable and unacceptable in the 21st century. Each person has to learn that their life is principally for them to determine by using their own skills and learning them when necessary. Without this societal understanding, we will sink even further into the quagmire of nation-wide penury and eventual collapse.
    IOW, the world cannot afford socialism any longer. Sorry Red Ed and Hattie et al, your time is past.


  7. I Totally agree Robin, and its even worse in America, where they are obsessed with giving people injections, particularly children. By the age of six, American children are expected to have had, 49 injections, no thats not a misprint, 49 injections, and more to come. See


  8. Its not only us that are under attack it’s also the furry critturs – some examples from Aus.

    Tasmanian Devils will probably go instinct from an infectious cancer, which is spread by biting. Extinction could a be a good thing because if the disease jumped to domestic animals it would be quite scary – whose Tiddles or Rex hasn’t given them an odd playful nip. The very narrow gene pool in these animals seems to be a factor in the spread of the disease. No cure or treatment. I think this is the only known infectious cancer.

    Fruit bats transmit the Hendra virus (similar to Nipah) to horses, the fruit bats live, the horses die, sometimes humans who’ve been in close contact with the horses also die. It looks as though a natural human antibody will offer protection for Nipah & Hendra, normally it exists at very low levels, but a couple of people have been treated with it in large doses – no side effects and they didn’t get the disease, but … Probably caused by destruction of fruit bats natural habitat so that they are forced to feed in populated areas. Horses like to stand under trees when its hot, fruit bats like to eat the fruit of the tree (e.g. figs) so the horses get shat upon by the bats. Think Syrup of Figs. I heard that horse owners are removing fruit bearing shade trees from their properties.

    Koala notBears are dying in large numbers of Chlamydia, which may well have species hopped from humans to koala’s – one assumes a mutation could easily hop back to humans.

    I’m a fatalist so these things don’t worry me too much, I know I’m going to die and all the evidence points to the fact that species homo sapiens will do likewise, San Fairy Ann,the universe wont die from lack of humans.


  9. Around 2OO4 research was carried out in the West of Scotland due to the high incidence of tuberculosis cases. The study coincides with your argument JW of increased travel, particularly among the ever-increasing Asian population. (Multi-culturism, dontcha just love it!) A further point highlighted was the increase of the disgusting habit of spitting in public (especially among the yoof underclass) which contributed to the reemergence of the tb virus, as it had almost been eradicated in Britain, apart from a few rogue cases. Maybe we should be worried about the early demise of our fine, morally upstanding, pocket of society- the multi-millionaire footballers- who have turned spitting into a fine art.:-)


  10. Ah John,
    what doom and gloom, it’s hard to know where to start commenting on your post but let´s start by saying pandemics have always been with us and much more disastrously in the past; the Black Death as an example. Perhaps similar disasters will return in the future but since we can´t predict the future, we don´t know, and need to be aware of people who think they can, as they are invariably wrong. New viruses and diseases will continue to adapt to changing circumstance just as we humans do, its evolution, and of course the closer we huddle together and travel the easier it is for them to adapt. Some diseases such as malaria have increased due to our own stupidity by banning of DDT because a few extreme environmentalists claimed, without proof, that it would kill us all.
    John, in the distant past, when we were young and caught a cold our mothers would rub some Vicks on our chests, give us a lemon drink and send us to bed for a couple of days. Today it’s to the doctor, umpteen blood tests, two weeks of medication and two repeat visits. Little wonder the Health Services are underfunded and overwhelmed. Medical research is an open ended field and researchers will continue to research as long as the funding is available.
    I feel I may have exceeded my allocated space so let me end by saying “We live longer and healthier than ever before” if we can continue to do so I don´t know. Please read the excellent and once again thanks for your thought provoking blog.


  11. Sorry, I know this is completely off-topic, but~ BBC News: The UK could potentially give up to £4Obn to the IMF to help the global economy, Treasury Chief Danny Alexander, has said. WTF?!


  12. @Michael If that reply was meant for me Michael, I take it as a huge compliment. George Carlin and Bill Hicks are two of my heroes RIP indeed. Our present day hero being JW of course, our very own bollocks buster.


  13. RP
    I have actually met a Tasmanian Devil and the truly are unpleasant little mothers.
    Species extinction goes with the territory if you are a physical entity stuck on a roughly spherical planet. The key is to maintain and support those species without which everything would go pear-shaped. For example, crocodiles and coral top-feeders.


  14. Off-topic is allowed in this case, as I hadn’t spotted that, seein’ azzow I’d been researching something marginally less lunatic. Thanks Liz.


  15. There was a Nurse called Caitlin at our local surgery when I was a kid, and I would have given several tubes of Spangles in return for her rubbing anything of mine with Vicks.


  16. Yes, £40b seems about the figure. the UK contributes about 4.x% of IMF funds and the political elites want it to have about £1 trillion more.


  17. Add to this the times in the past when the “cure” has been worse than the disease and it could look even worse. It is suggested that the Spanish Flu epidemic around 1918 and 1919 was made worse by using very high doseages of Aspirin that may have killed an unknown number.


  18. Mother Superior solemnly announces to her flock: “Sisters, I have to tell you that there’s a case of Chlamydia in the convent.”

    Pipes up a young novice: “Well, I hope its better than that f*****g Chardonnay we had last week!”


  19. “The empirical research done by Lipkin’s lot does show mutation and acceleration after a species jump. Go figure.”

    A change in nutritional regime brought about by the change of host and the perceived threat (not cerebral just environmental to the micro-organism) would induce mutation.

    Stress any bacteria (temperature, osmotic pressure, lack of nutrients or disequilibrium in nutrients) and you will see an increase in mutation as the organism creats a greater chance of it surviving the threat; in this case cell stress.

    Incidentally, all our major human bacterial diseases originate from animals and have crossed the species barrier, albeit a long time ago. I would guess that the viral one would also be similar. We, in fact have bacteria DNA incorporated into our DNA which either came from our evolutionary past of maybe long ago infections (bit unsure of the latter bit)


  20. I’m working in my lab on a vaccine that sucks the life out of Mugabe’s, Obiangs, Nigerian 419ers, Ahmadinnerjackets and other similar pond life to inject into the wonderful nice people we know and love who have cancer and shitty diseases of the like. How is it that the vermin go on and on but our wonderful beautiful friends get stuck down. Sorry late at night, wine talking. I’m off to bed now.


  21. Too f*****g funny!!!

    So here we go off–topic. Veteran sister and novice return after a night at the pub to find the convent locked. Never mind says older nun I know a spot we can scale the wall. Halfway up the wall, novice, loving it, says,
    “Oh sister, I feel like a commando!”
    “Well so do I dear,’ says the sister, ‘But where’re you going to find one this time of night?”


  22. We have come perilously close to ending our tenure on the planet already. I strongly suspect we’ll be a flash-in-the-pan on a geological time scale. I certainly can’t imagine us coming anywhere near the 100s of millions of years the dinosaurs logged in the longevity sweeps.

    Btw John, not intending to be rude, but isn’t “curved balls” an awful lot like “black swans?” Not that there’s anything wrong with that. :)


  23. I have no doubt that the evolving of hominds spelled the death knell of the planet, but I cannot wish for a pandemic to kill off millions anymore than I can wish for famines or nuclear holocaust, asteroid strike, or eruption of a supervolcano. Man is a pathetic species — too intelligent for his own good and yet unbelieveably lacking in common sense. I’m a bit jaded probably because I just finished reading Paul Johnson’s “Modern Times, the history of the world from the twenties to the nineties” easily the most destructive decade ever. Some how we have to muddle on trying to take care of our selves and our close ones.


  24. A small “good news” story, prompted by Liz O’Donnells reference to spitting.

    Yesterday I was sitting waiting for a bus. The seat faced away from the road. Standing opposite, against a shop window, stood a Chinese man. I cleared my throat for no particular reason, as one does whilst waiting for buses. The Chinese man standing opposite made an apologetic gesture in my direction and walked maybe 10-15 yards away from the bus stop. As he did so I realised he was smoking a cigarette.

    As we got on the bus I thanked him, he apologised again and lamented he couldn’t give up the fags.

    Those who’ve ever been to China would understand why Liz’s anecdote reminded me of this small triumph of one man’s humanity towards a fellow man.


  25. Overpopulation is a myth.

    The always-accurate lowest edge of the lowest band of the UN Population Survey sez <8bn peak around 2035.

    Whether you "buy" it or not.


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