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In this episode of the Going Viral podcast, disease detectives Mark Honigsbaum and Hannah Mawdsley talk with Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, which is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop COVID-19 treatments. The Trust’s primary mission is to support medical and health research, working with businesses, governments, and academics. This year, the Trust is commemorating the 1918-19 Spanish flu through a variety of cultural and historical projects, in the hope of unveiling lessons that will help humankind better respond to pandemics.


Society can learn critical lessons from studying past pandemics.

Hundreds of thousands of people die each year of influenza. Doctors know a lot about that medical condition, but it can still cause a global catastrophe.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a highly contagious respiratory illness, emerged from the wet markets of southern China in 2003, and spread across that country for months before it was identified. But when SARS hit Hong Kong, its existence was exposed to the world. The virus quickly spread to Vietnam, infecting large numbers of people, including doctors and nurses.

Astute clinicians recognized that they were seeing only the tip of a SARS infection iceberg. This scenario was similar to that of outbreaks of bird flu, Zika and Ebola. Epidemiologist Carlo Urbani prevented a wider epidemic by asking authorities to quarantine the hospital where he worked. About 45 people died in that hospital, and Urbani himself later succumbed to SARS. Urbani’s death was a wake-up call for the public health community in Southeast Asia. The disease is often called “the world’s first 21st century epidemic.” It also follows ...

About the Podcast

Co-hosts and “disease detectives” Dr. Mark Honigsbaum and Dr. Hannah Mawdsley specialize in writing about the history and science of infectious diseases. Guest Dr. Jeremy Farrar is a British medical researcher and the director of the London-based Wellcome Trust.

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