Can We Build an Early Warning System for Pandemics?

Larry Brilliant is challenging the world's brightest minds to come up with new ways of warning of disease dangers.
Dr. Larry Brilliant attends 2008 Global Leadership Awards gala at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel October 1, 2008 in New York City. (Photo: Getty Images).
Sep 1, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

From his Bay Area office, Larry Brilliant gets to help some of the world’s most innovative organizations find new ways to solve some of the biggest threats facing the planet: climate change, access to clean water, and pandemics.

But the President of the Skoll Global Threats Fund got his start in the trenches of one the greatest battles in the history of modern medicine: the fight to wipe smallpox off the map.

Then in his late 20’s, Brilliant had been studying at a monastery in India when his guru convinced him that he needed to help the World Health Organization’s eradication campaign.

His days were consumed with visiting villages where hundreds of children had been struck down by the ancient plague, for which no treatment has ever been found.

“On many occasions a mother would come up to me and say ‘doctor, please treat my child,’” Brilliant said. “And that child was already dead from smallpox.”

Because smallpox can spread with remarkable ease between humans, Brilliant and his teammates couldn’t settle for anything less than total eradication.

After years of exhaustive work, Brilliant came face-to-face in 1975 with the last human being ever infected with naturally occurring Variola major, the virus that causes the most devastating form of smallpox. She was a little girl named Rahima Banu, who lived in Bangladesh.

“When she coughed, and the last smallpox virus landed on the hot earth and was scorched to death by the Bengal sun, it ended a chain of transmission that went back to Pharaoh Ramses V,” he said.

After leaving India, Brilliant went on to earn a reputation as a guy who aimed high — and delivered.

He served as the CEO of two public companies. He founded one of the internet’s first online communities called The Well. More than one magazine called him a tech “visionary.” His Seva Foundation helps prevent and cure blindness in the developing world. And he served as the inaugural Executive Director of, the internet behemoth’s philanthropic arm.

Oh and then there was the small matter of his 2006 TED Prize along the way.

But it was his work in India that left a lasting impression.

Hundreds of millions fell victim to smallpox before it was finally erased from the earth. Brilliant’s time with the WHO got him thinking about how humanity could beat other diseases before the exacted a similarly nightmarish toll.

His dream: build a worldwide early-response and detection system to protect the world from disease.

“Early detection, early response,” Brilliant said. “You have to attack these epidemics where they first occur. It doesn’t do you any good to wait until they come to New York.”

To that end, Brilliant and the Skoll Global Threats Fund have helped support a first-of-its-kind project called CHORDS — Connecting Health Organizations for Regional Disease Surveillance — that helps countries figure out how to work together to share best practices when it comes to fighting and preventing outbreaks.

“Viruses don’t know about political borders,” he said. 

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