Experts Have Long Warned About a Pandemic. Why Wasn’t Philanthropy Paying Attention?

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Over 20 years ago, I read a thriller called “The Cobra Event” by Richard Preston, about a terrorist who releases a deadly virus in the United States. Preston had previously written “The Hot Zone,” a book on an Ebola outbreak in Africa, and so he knew all sorts of scary things about how quickly lethal infectious diseases could spread. “The Cobra Eventscared the heck out of me, and supposedly also scared Bill Clinton so much that he ordered the U.S. government to pay more attention to biosecurity.

In 2011, I saw the movie “Contagion” starring Matt Damon, which vividly played out the impact of a pandemic that originates in China, killing over 2 million Americans and tens of millions more people worldwide. 

What was so alarming about these two works of fiction is how totally plausible they were. For decades, when experts have mused about the really bad things that could happen in the world, a pandemic was always near the top of the list.

Yet, for the most part, philanthropy has paid little attention to this risk. As IP recently reported, very few funders work in this space, and the dollar amounts granted have been negligible. Now, as the coronavirus disrupts U.S. society in a big way, some foundations are scrambling to respond. But almost no one in the sector seems to have thought at all about biosecurity issues, so for the most part, they’re starting from scratch in dealing with an emergency that’s turning communities upside-down. 

Why have funders been caught so off-guard here?