Review: 'Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak'

When you are trying to decide the best time to release a TV series, it can be better to be lucky than smart. That certainly seems to be the case for Netflix, which released this new six-episode documentary about the dangers of pandemics the same week that China seems to be undergoing an outbreak of the Coronavirus. And if you're looking for a complete guide to all of the horrors that might be headed our way, "Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak" is an entertaining and informative look at how viruses spread and the efforts being made around the globe to lessen the impacts of infectious disease.

"Pandemic" begins with a search in a suspected mass grave site in Butler County, Pennsylvania that contains victims of the 1918 Spanish Flu. In an era before air travel, that pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide and it's the event that drives a lot of the relentless efforts of scientists to simultaneously work towards more effective vaccines and ways the spread of an mass outbreak can be slowed. One scientist warns that it's only a matter of time until a new deadly pandemic surfaces and given the interconnected world we live in, a new outbreak could kill hundreds of millions of people.

We tend to think of the flu as more of an inconvenience than anything else in the United States, although we know in the abstract that it can kill people. But the flu actually kills 700,000 people or so globally each year. Most of the deaths are preventable, if patients had access to the flu vaccine & quality healthcare that could intervene early enough in the illness to prevent a more severe outcome. And one strand of the stories interwoven in "Pandemic" are concerned with the issue of providing adequate healthcare. The urban hospital in India that generally doesn't get patients from rural areas until they are near death. The small county hospital in Oklahoma that has a one doctor working 72-hours shifts and has been close to shutting down in recent years. Those stories are scary but probably aren't a surprise, given the lack of health care resources in smaller communities.

But there are also plenty of warnings about what a mass outbreak would mean to large urban areas like greater New York City. One health care official notes that most hospitals in NYC are working at close to 100 percent capacity in a normal flu season. A pandemic would overwhelm the health care system within days. To say nothing of the impact an outbreak would have on everything from food supplies to burial services. In other words, no area is safe or comfortable in the midst of a widespread viral outbreak. So the most effective approach is to stop the spread of the virus before it becomes a major pandemic. 

Any viral outbreak follows the same trajectory: birds pass it along to animals who then pass it along to humans. One scientist working to track the transmission vectors of the avian flu virus says that most major viral infections in the past fifty years have come out of China and that's likely to be the center for any major outbreak. China has the perfect storm of location, population density & frequent close contact between animals and humans. It's a pandemic waiting to happen, which might be one of the reasons why China seems to be ground zero for the new Coronavirus.

"Pandemic" also introduces viewers to some of the scientists working towards the Holy Grail of viral immunology: a vaccine that would prevent transmissions of a wide range of viruses. This would not only make the current somewhat ineffective flu shots a thing of the past, it would also hopefully make it possible to prevent the next pandemic. The documentary follows one small bio start-up which is in the midst of animal trials on a possible universal vaccine. It appears to work, but requires a series of seven shots. The scientists struggle to bring down that number of required shots, while bootstrapping animal trials with their own money. At one point, they head to Guatemala to do tests on pigs, in hopes of getting results positive enough to allow them to move to human trials.

But mixed in with all the hard work and optimism is the growing movement of people unwilling for whatever reason to get vaccinated. From guerrillas in the Congo who are convinced an Ebola vaccine is actually giving people the disease to Oregon anti-vaxers who see requiring immunizations as a consent issue, a fear of traditional medicine is hampering efforts to slow the progress of the flu and other viral diseases. One Oregon mom says she believes her children don't need to be vaccinated if they are simply given healthy foods and live a clean lifestyle. Hearing her talk about immunizations makes me wonder how these anti-vaccination supporters will respond during a pandemic in which health care workers are offering a preventive vaccine. 

That tension between science and emotion, hope and despair is ultimately what makes "Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak" so compelling. It's a complex issue and one that sits at the heart of a lot of arguments being made in 2020. What are our responsibilities as a society? Are we required to get immunizations for the greater good? Is it worth spending  money in anticipation of a pandemic that might not take place for 50 or 100 years? After watching the series, I'm not sure I have the answers to those questions. But I definitely feel more qualified to know what I don't know pandemics.

"Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak" premiered Tuesday, January 23rd, 2020 on Netflix.