We talked by phone on Tuesday. At the time, President Donald Trump’s response to the crisis had started to change from “no worries at all” to finally taking more significant steps to stem the pandemic. Brilliant lives in one of the six Bay Area counties where residents were ordered to shelter in place. When we began the conversation, he’d just gotten off the phone with someone he described as high government official, who asked Brilliant “How the fuck did we get here?” I wanted to hear how we’ll get out of here. The conversation has been edited and condensed.Steven Levy: I was in the room in 2006 when you gave that TED talk. Your wish was “Help Me Stop Pandemics.” You didn't get your wish, did you?Larry Brilliant: No, I didn't get that wish at all, although the systems that I asked for have certainly been created and are being used. It's very funny because we did a movie, Contagion—
We're all watching that movie now.People say Contagion is prescient. We just saw the science. The whole epidemiological community has been warning everybody for the past 10 or 15 years that it wasn't a question of whether we were going to have a pandemic like this. It was simply when. It's really hard to get people to listen. I mean, Trump pushed out the admiral on the National Security Council, who was the only person at that level who's responsible for pandemic defense. With him went his entire downline of employees and staff and relationships. And then Trump removed the [early warning] funding for countries around the world.
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I've heard you talk about the significance that this is a “novel” virus.
It doesn't mean a fictitious virus. It’s not like a novel or a novella.
It means it's new. That there is no human being in the world that has immunity as a result of having had it before. That means it’s capable of infecting 7.8 billion of our brothers and sisters.
What Is a Quarantine?