Have we forgotten the threat posed by systemic risks?

It’s not healthy to dwell unnecessarily on non-existent or very low-level threats, of course, and no good comes from scare-mongering. Still, it does seem strange that so soon after we’ve just emerged from one of the most unsettling and costly pandemics on record, so little of our public discourse is centred on systemic risk.

Which is why we should sit up and take note when no less a figure as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, (pic) the head of the World Health Organisation, warned on 8 February that the world has to prepare for a possible avian flu pandemic.

The new H5N1 avian influenza strain has spread through birds across every continent except for Australia and Antarctica, killing hundreds of millions of wild and farmed birds globally in the past year.

Significantly, it now appears to have spread to mammals, with authorities confirming that  four dead seals in Scotland died last year of the highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), with some 70 other mammals including otters and foxes have tested positive for the strain of the virus.

Should we be worried? In short, yes. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, there is a real risk that the strain could pass onto us:

“There is a risk that avian influenza viruses may transmit from birds to humans and result in severe human disease. The risk of transmission is higher in areas where people and domestic birds reside closely together, or for occupational exposure to infected birds eg during culling operations.”

Meanwhile, we appear to have let our guard down over COVID. In the fourth year of the pandemic, COVID is once again spreading across America, driven by fewer precautions and the continuing evolution of Omicron subvariants of the virus, according to health experts. 

We may be able to manage the short-term effects of COVID better, but no-one really has a handle on long-COVID, so we really should be concerned about this.

Time to take systemic risk seriously again? I think so.

Marcus Alcock,

Editor, Emerging Risks