ASM Partners with Smithsonian on “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World”

May 18, 2018

One hundred years ago, while large parts of the western world were caught up in the destruction of World War I, a flu virus, which we now identify as H1N1, found fertile ground for devastation of its own. The H1N1 pandemic of 1918 spread well beyond the war zone, circling the globe and killing over 100 million people, between 3 and 5 percent of the human population. It is remembered as one of the most devastating pandemics in history and it lives on in family stories. I distinctly recall my grandmother, who lived though the pandemic in Italy, describing how scary it was. All her life, one of her biggest health worries was that another “Spagnola” (Italian for “Spanish,” the name that was incorrectly given to the H1N1 pandemic) would break out. Having lived through it, for her it was a terrifying thought. The flu did not start in Spain but, as a neutral country during the war without strict military censorship, the first news of the deadly flu outbreak spread from there. Ironically, even today the “Spanish flu” shows us the connection between the global flow of influenza viruses and information.  

To mark the 100th anniversary of the devastating 1918 pandemic flu and to highlight the critical threat posed by global infectious disease, the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) has collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History on the exhibit “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World.” It covers 4,000 square feet of the museum, which is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It opens today, and will run through May 2021. I had a preview this week, and, dear ASM member, you should definitely go see it! So should family, friends, students, and your grandmother if she’s been worrying about the next pandemic. As ASM CEO I was immensely proud of our role in supporting and shaping “Outbreak,” and I was delighted to see so much of the One Health target message so skillfully presented to a general audience.  

One World, One Health

The exhibit does not overburden the visitor with a flood of notions and scientific terms. Instead, the presentation works almost subliminally to present visitors with thought-provoking information and central concepts. It’s done in a clever way that engages at different levels both children and adults with key questions: What is the relationship between animals, the environment, humans and microbes? What is the role of humans in spreading animal-borne viruses? And what happens when there is an outbreak? Who is in charge? How are things handled? Could a 1918 pandemic flu occur again?

The Smithsonian estimates that 10 million people will visit this exhibit over the next 3 years. That means that 10 million people will not only get a better understanding of the suffering that infectious diseases have brought around the globe over the years, but will also see the message of hope coming from how we are addressing challenges today through science, public health, communication, education and collaboration. I am sure this will be the start of a public dialogue and key in raising awareness on this important issue!The exhibit is very effective in conveying the One Health concept where humans, animals and the environment are all part of one big ecosystem that needs to be studied and protected. This is a core concept for ASM, and the exhibit conveys the concept masterfully with interactive displays and games and wonderful displays of bats, insects and many other zoonotic reservoirs. From the more obscure Nipah virus to the terrifying HIV, SARS and Zika viruses, the exhibit shows how viruses can spread from animals to people and why some become pandemics that can kill millions—or not, and the Smithsonian does a great job in explaining why it can happen, and pays great tribute to the public health and science heroes who have fought for our “one health” over the last century. One of my favorite quotes, displayed on a wall at the exhibit, is from a public health physician, Daniel Lucey: “What’s next is already here; we just haven’t recognized it yet.” It is so true!

Where Are We Now?

Today, we are certainly better prepared to deal with epidemics than we were in 1918. For one, we know so much more about viruses, their structure, physiology and genetics, thanks largely to decades of research by ASM members and others. In public health, we have much better ways of gathering and spreading information through news media, which can play an essential role in limiting contagions. We also have far more sophisticated surveillance networks to spot outbreaks, identify emerging pathogens and target control efforts. We have vaccines and drugs that can be important weapons in our arsenal.

If 1918 was a long time ago, what about tomorrow? Could a new pandemic occur? Unfortunately, yes. We are better equipped, but we are not as prepared as we should be. The 2009 reemergence of a virulent H1N1 strain in Mexico and the U.S. showed the considerable gaps in our defenses. Fortunately, that 2009 strain did not snowball into a pandemic but, in the era of jet travel and hypermobility, rapid contagion and global spread are all too possible. In addition, our vaccine armamentarium is still limited because we do not know what the next threat will be. Even for the seasonal flu, we must continue making (well) educated guesses about the coming year’s most prevalent strain, at least until the development of a universal flu vaccine. For emerging pathogens, we need still faster identification methods and quicker vaccine responses.

Next-generation sequencing is a very powerful technology that is already helping to monitor mutations in dangerous microbes. However, the technology is not yet able to provide an effective worldwide monitoring system. We also need to better understand microbial reservoirs in animals and in the environment. This is why the microbial sciences and ASM, its leading scientific society, are so important. ASM brings together expertise from a wide range of disciplines, from clinical microbiologists and infectious disease doctors in hospitals to environmental microbiologists in labs studying microbes in animals and in the environment in general. As the Smithsonian’s new “Outbreak” exhibit shows so well, this is one big connected world. This is the strength of our resilient planet, but its very complexity can mask new risks that can seem to arise out of nowhere. We certainly need more science and more investment in science to further understand, prevent and treat those threatening microbial pathogens.

The Right Time for the Exhibit's Message

The Smithsonian “Outbreak” exhibit could not have come at a more appropriate time. The 100th anniversary of the “Spagnola” reminds us of the havoc it wreaked in so many corners of the world. The exhibit demonstrates that microbes know no borders and that science is a global endeavor. And yet only last week, there was a new proposal in Washington to rescind a $252 million emergency fund created in response to the Ebola outbreak. This would be a serious mistake, and ASM has sent a letter to Congress protesting this proposal. It comes on the heels of reports from the Democratic Republic of the Congo of another Ebola outbreak. Perhaps the greater folly is the existence of preparedness funds earmarked for specific pathogens. We should have a general preparedness fund for emerging and remerging infectious diseases. We may not know what or where the next outbreak will be, but we do know there will be one.

In 1918, our knowledge of viruses was minimal and our understanding of global transmission was primitive. Humanity walked blindfolded into the 1918 H1N1 pandemic. Today we know far more about viral mutation, but we also know that we are exponentially more exposed to its dangers by global interconnections. Hopefully the “Outbreak” exhibit will open more eyes to what microbial scientists know, what we have yet to learn, and what we all have to do to prevent a future “Spagnola.”

“Outbreak” runs at the Smithsonian through May 2021. Go see it. Send students and friends. Maybe take your Congressional representative. And your grandparents too, and I hope you will get a chance to meet Ashley Peery, the ASM fellow detailed to the Smithsonian. She is training the volunteers and developing outreach programs that tie into the exhibit, and she has done a wonderful job. We are so proud of you, Ashley! And thank you, Smithsonian for this wonderful exhibition!

If You Go:

"Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World"  is at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., until May 2021. Admission is free.

If You Can’t Go (Now): 

Starting in June, ASM’s This Week in Virology podcast, hosted by Vincent Racaniello, will feature a special monthly segment focusing on the latest research on one of the viruses featured in the Outbreak exhibit.

Look for updates from ASM on the exhibit and related initiatives. Panels from “Outbreak” will be on display at the ASM booth in the exhibit hall at ASM Microbe 2018 (Atlanta, Ga., June 7-11).

On May 21, ASM will be live streaming a joint briefing with Research!America and the American Society for Virology to mark the opening of “Outbreak.” ASM will be releasing the results of a national public opinion survey on vaccines and infectious disease outbreaks. The event will be streamed on ASM’s Facebook page at 10 am ET, Monday, May 21.

Author: Stefano Bertuzzi

Stefano Bertuzzi
Stefano Bertuzzi is the CEO of the American Society for Microbiology.