At Techonomy 22 in Sonoma, Calif., this week, scientific experts drew a straight line between global warming and global health crises. One notable voice in the conversation was Larry Brilliant, a doctor, epidemiologist, and philanthropist, who spoke with Techonomy’s David Kirkpatrick about his friendship with Steve Jobs, the world’s disastrous response to Covid-19, and more. View the full session video here.)
1. Global warming and global health are inextricably linked
“We’re having a tremendous amount of spillover,” Brilliant said, noting that viruses are jumping from animal hosts to humans “at five times the rate that [they] did 50 years ago.” As the Earth gets warmer, he said, animals from the south are migrating to the north. Mosquitoes are able to survive — and infect people — in more of the world, including areas that were once too cold for them, exposing an additional billion people to potential infection. With animals, insects, and people living in the same territories, he said, there is more opportunity for us to encounter dangerous new pathogens.
Other climate-related factors contribute to health threats as well. More people in lower-income areas are eating so-called “bush meat” from wild animals because they can’t afford other foods, a practice that is known sometimes to expose people to dangerous microbes. Even in wealthier areas, Brilliant said, more people are keeping exotic animals as pets, and at least one outbreak of dangerous virus has been traced to such practices. Meanwhile, increased flooding driven by a warmer planet brings salt to more land, threatening arable land and bringing famine for animals and people.
“The major culprit is modernity,” Brilliant said. “The most invasive species in the world is us.”
2. ‘Every country has done a terrible job’ with Covid
Somewhere between 5 million and 15 million people have died so far from Covid, said Brilliant, who served as a science advisor for the movie Contagion. “Every country has done a terrible job,” he said, arguing that the age of modern medicine should have kept us from competing with death rates seen in the 1918 flu pandemic.
Even cutting-edge mRNA vaccines are simply playing whack-a-mole with the rapidly evolving virus, according to Brilliant. “We’re fighting the battle of the last variant,” he said.
While he expressed hope that the virus responsible for Covid will eventually evolve to cause only a mild cold, as some previous coronaviruses have done, Brilliant isn’t counting on it. He’s still masking up in crowded indoor venues, including at the Techonomy 22 event.
He also called out vaccine manufacturer Moderna for not setting up facilities in Africa to make and distribute their Covid vaccines. “I think they failed that test,” he said.
3. He witnessed the world’s last case of smallpox
It doesn’t take long to list all of the viral and bacterial pathogens that have been eliminated from the human population: it starts and ends with smallpox. “It’s the only disease ever eradicated,” said Brilliant, who was part of the World Health Organization that traced the final cases. Brilliant recalled being in Bangladesh with the world’s last smallpox victim, a little girl who represented the end of an unbroken chain of transmission that went back to Pharoah Ramses V, he said.
“It felt so wonderful to be able to participate in [eradicating smallpox],” Brilliant said.
4. If his life was made into a movie, nobody would believe it
Brilliant’s career path has been filled with twists and turns. He became famous in the late 1960s as the doctor who delivered a baby on Alcatraz when a group of Native Americans took over the island off San Francisco in a protest. He was cast in a movie, after which he spent several years at an ashram in the Himalayas. But his guru repeatedly tried to get him to leave. “I would sit there and I would meditate and he would throw apples at my testicles,” said Brilliant, adding that the ashram’s leader was the one who convinced him to work for the WHO. It was during his time there that he met Steve Jobs, with whom he developed a lifelong friendship. Brilliant told the story of Jobs, barefoot, coming to a local WHO office in the early 1970s seeking Brilliant, because he believed it would give him access to air conditioning and a salad