Who is Larry Brilliant? Doc who helped eradicate smallpox says Covid-19 here to stay

WHO epidemiologist Larry Brilliant says it is too late for herd immunity and adds that the 'virus is going to be with us for years or decades'


                            Who is Larry Brilliant? Doc who helped eradicate smallpox says Covid-19 here to stay
Dr Larry Brilliant has a word of wisdom about Covid-19 (Cashinj/Wikimedia Commons)

While Americans are happily ripping off their masks and celebrating the end of the pandemic, one expert believes our happiness is premature. Dr Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist, author and philanthropist believes Covid-19 is here to stay, despite our best efforts. In a wide-ranging interview, Brilliant summed up the challenges of the virus, and why we will never be able to truly eradicate Covid-19. 

Brilliant's comments aren't the first time we have been hit with the bad news. Back in May 2020, Mike Ryan of the World Health Organization (WHO) said, "This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away." The challenges of ending viral diseases aren't new. Africa has been struggling to control repeated Ebola outbreaks since the disease was discovered. To make matters worse, scientists have noted that the constant destruction of natural habitats is leading to more viral diseases transmitting from animals to humans

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With all these factors in play, numerous experts have repeatedly said Covid-19 may never be eradicated. Now, Brilliant has added to those with his own take on the subject. But can his words be trusted? Here's a look at why it is worth heeding his advice.

A woman wearing a protective mask carries a toilet paper package on the street on March 13, 2020, in New York City (Jeenah Moon/Getty Images)

Who is Dr Larry Brilliant?

An epidemiologist with decades of experience, Brilliant is best known for helping to eradicate smallpox. Having obtained degrees from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, Brilliant spent the 1970s working with the WHO as a medical officer. But before that, he was part of the hippie wave of the '60s. As a young doctor in San Francisco, Brilliant became friends with many icons of the decade, like Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Steve Jobs and Richard Alpert. He was a part of the famous Hog Farm Bus that traveled from Europe to India, delivering food and aid to those in need.

Brilliant's wife Elaine urged him to join her at the ashram of Neem Karoli Baba, which he reluctantly did. "These young Americans were touching this old man's feet," he said in an interview. "I thought my wife had been captured by a cult." While at the ashram, Baba said Brilliant would join the UN on a campaign to eradicate smallpox. And that's exactly what happened. When the UN launched its eradication program in India, Brilliant was a part of the team. "I had the privilege of seeing the last case of smallpox," he said, after helping a team of 150,000 people from 170 countries end the deadly disease. 

In 1978, he opened The Seva Foundation to help provide low-cost eye care in developing nations. He then returned to the US and took up a teaching job at the University of Michigan. In 2005, he returned to the WHO to help India eradicate polio and volunteered in Sri Lanka after the deadly tsunami. Between 2006-2009, Brilliant was also a Google employee, heading the company's non-profit arm Google.org. In 2008, George W Bush tapped Brilliant to be the Chair of the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee. 

SInce 2018, Brilliant has been on the board of advisors for Ending Pandemics and served as the CEO of Pandefence Advisors. He's also published several books. Recently, Brilliant served as the medical advisor for the film 'Contagion'. 

Dr Larry Brilliant at Spotlight Health Aspen Ideas Festival in 2015 (Bluerasberry/Wikimedia Commons)

Brilliant says Covid-19 here to stay

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Brilliant said, "I wish we could reach herd immunity. But there’s a number of reasons why we can’t." According to him, there are several key reasons why, despite the rising rate of vaccinations. For one, Covid-19 is known to infect animals as well as humans. "A virus that has multiple new variants, each one having the potential to reinfect people, is sort of disqualified from being a candidate to be eradicated," he said. 

The second reason is the drastically different situation between the US and the developing world. "It’s a Dickensian moment. It’s the best of times, because we’ve got the vaccines, and it’s the worst of times, because of the people who don’t have the vaccine. It’s a tale not of two cities but of two worlds, and two lived experiences." As a result of that, the virus is quickly mutating and evolving, which does impact vaccination. "What we fear the most is that kind of a variant that will infect people who’ve already been vaccinated, and that the vaccines will turn out to not be effective against it," he said. Brilliant noted that the AstraZeneca vaccines are highly ineffective against the beta variant of Covid-19, and added, "this should be a big red light blinking for us".

A laboratory worker handles essay tubes at the production plant of mAbxience biotechnology company on August 13, 2020, in Garín, Argentina (Ricardo Ceppi/Getty Images)

Then there are the concerns of unvaccinated people. "We should realize that if 30 percent of Americans are not vaccinated, that’s 120 million people. And that’s plenty for the virus to come in and create another wave," he noted. Brilliant also slammed the current political environment, asking "what world are we living in?" But it's not all bad news, Brilliant credited the WHO and other organizations for quickly finding a vaccine for Covid-19. "It’s astonishing, and we should feel really grateful," he said. "I’m pretty optimistic that we’re going to get a handle on this disease, that we’re going to have booster shots, and we’re going to shame or convince the world to help build vaccine manufacturing plants all over the world." 

Brilliant added, "We’ve already got a global program. It may be uncoordinated, it may not have leadership, we’ve got all those problems, but we do have a global program, and we have a vaccine. Lots of good news." Eradicating a disease is a challenge mankind has succeeded in only twice — with smallpox and rinderpest. All other diseases are usually controlled as 'endemics', i.e. limited to one geography through vaccines, quarantines and other measures. It certainly feels like that is the future for Covid-19.

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