Pandemic! The global threat of deadly diseases

Pandemic! The global threat of deadly diseases

This event is now closed. Our next Science and Society event will take place in June 2016 - we will post updates on our Twitter feed: @EBItraining.

Pandemic! The global threat of deadly diseases was a Science and Society event organised by EMBL-EBI and held at the Cambridge Union Society. An evening of talks and lively discussion about the global spread of infectious diseases, with expert speakers that work on pathogen evolution, genetics and immunology.

 Twitter: #scisoc2015
Facebook: /EMBLEBI

When and where?

Date: Wednesday 3 June 2015
Time: 6:15pm to 9:15pm (doors open at 6)
VenueThe Cambridge Union Society 
Registration: The event is free and open to all.

Download the poster

About the event

The threat of rapidly spreading infectious disease has captured our imagination. The success of Hollywood blockbusters such as Contagion and Outbreak reflect this fear, showing how society might fall apart in the wake of a global epidemic. This concern is amplified by the knowledge that infectious diseases - caused by organisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites - kill millions of people worldwide each year.

The current Ebola crisis has brought the risk of a global pandemic to the forefront of people’s minds, following in the footsteps of other recent epidemics such as bird flu. But the sheer scale of the Ebola outbreak and its high mortality rate has attracted wider attention and concern.

Yet do we, in Britain, genuinely need to be concerned that these outbreaks taking place in other parts of the world might reach our shores? Pandemics are not a new threat, but are there aspects of our modern world that make them more likely? What can scientific research do to help us in the fight against infectious diseases? These are the kinds of questions we would like to explore in our Science and Society event.


Chair: Katrina Costa

Time Title Speaker
6:15 PM Welcome Halldor Stefansson
6:20 PM  The threat of pandemics Derek Smith
6:50 PM  Better the bug you know?  Basic bioscience underpinning infection control Oliver Billker
7:20 PM The 2014 Ebola outbreak and the risk of future pandemics Kristian Andersen
8:00 PM Questions for discussion with the panel of speakers  
8:45 PM Refreshments  


Photo of Derek Smith - University of Cambridge
Derek Smith

Derek Smith: The threat of pandemics


Derek Smith is Professor of Infectious Disease Informatics at Cambridge University in the UK, and is also Director of the Centre for Pathogen Evolution, and Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre for Modelling, Evolution, and Control of Emerging Infectious Diseases (both positions also at Cambridge University). He is also a member of the Viroscience Department at Erasmus Medical Center in The Netherlands. He is a member of the WHO influenza vaccine strain selection committee, and is also involved in vaccine strain selection for other human and non-human pathogens for the FAO and OIE. His research is focused on how pathogens evolve, to what extent this evolution is predictable, and determining public and animal health measures against such ever-changing pathogens. He received a United States National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award in 2005 for his work on Antigenic Cartography, a method that enables detailed study of pathogen evolution.


Infectious disease pandemics have plagued us – and other animal species – for as long as we know. These pandemics are of great concern for health, humanitarian, and national security reasons. Derek Smith will give an overview of what is being done to prevent such pandemics from starting, and what can be done to mitigate their effects if they do happen. Pandemics are very difficult to prepare and plan for because they are events that have a low probability of occurring, but the impact could be huge. How much money should we spend preparing for pandemics – or should we spend that money in other critical areas? Can science help us make these decisions?

Photo of Oliver Billker - Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
Oliver Billker

Oliver Billker: Better the bug you know?  Basic bioscience underpinning infection control


Dr Oliver Billker is a faculty member at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. He is interested in how malaria parasites respond to and modify their environment in order to colonise their hosts. His research team has a particular focus on the biology of the insect stages of the parasite, which undertake an extraordinary journey from the blood meal to the salivary glands of the mosquito, thereby enabling malaria to be transmitted between individuals. His team works closely with collaborators to develop new genetic technologies that will facilitate the discovery of new drugs against the disease.


The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in 2013 alone, nearly 200 million cases of malaria led to an estimated 600,000 deaths – the vast majority were African children under five. Malaria is caused by complex parasites that replicate inside red blood cells and are transmitted by blood sucking mosquitoes. Despite some recent success in pushing back the disease, there is still no effective vaccine and drug-resistance is beginning to emerge against our last line of defence. Although malaria was successfully eliminated from Europe and North America more than 60 years ago, the parasites persist today throughout most of the tropics. Eradicating this disease remains a formidable challenge and many believe it cannot be achieved with current tools. How can basic research into the genomes of parasites and vectors help in the battle against malaria?

Photo of Kristian Andersen - University of Harvard
Kristian Andersen

Kristian Andersen: The 2014 Ebola outbreak and the risk of future pandemics


Originally from Denmark, Kristian Andersen received his PhD from the University of Cambridge and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 2009. He was the recipient of the Carlsberg Foundation PhD Scholarship from 2005-2008 and was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship from the same foundation in 2009 and 2010. In 2008 he was awarded the Max Perutz prize for "outstanding graduate research" at the University of Cambridge. Since moving to Harvard he has been investigating the complex relationship between host and pathogen. Using a combination of experimental and computational techniques he is investigating how the human immune system impacts the evolution of viral pathogens such as Lassa and Ebola. Given the strong selection pressures caused by these microorganisms, he is also investigating signals of natural selection in the human genome in response to infectious agents.


The 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic ravaging West Africa is by far the largest outbreak of Ebola virus ever recorded. The countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have recorded more than 25,000 cases with more than 10,000 deaths and the epidemic has spread across international borders affecting several countries in Europe and the United States. The Ebola epidemic is a stark reminder that viral hemorrhagic fever viruses - including Ebola, Marburg, and Lassa - can lead to devastating outbreaks with massive humanitarian and economic consequences. What is particularly problematic about these diseases is that we do not currently have any approved vaccines or drugs, and outbreaks can now be expected to occur in highly populated areas with limited healthcare infrastructures. It is critical that we learn from this outbreak, and to prevent future outbreaks we need to make significant investments in the healthcare infrastructure and pathogen surveillance in the endemic countries, while continuing to develop effective diagnostics, drugs, and vaccines.


The EMBL-EBI Science and Society evening 'Pandemic! The global threat of deadly diseases' will take place at The Cambridge Union Society

The Cambridge Union
9a Bridge Street

The nearest public car park is Park Street (postcode CB5 8AS) and there are bicycle racks outside.


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Cambridge Union

Cambridge Union


About the EMBL Science and Society Programme

Pandemic! The global threat of deadly diseases is a Science and Society event organised by the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI). The event is part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s Science and Society programme. This initiative was established in 1998 to promote the growing social and cultural relevance of the life sciences.

Contact us

Have questions about the event? Please contact: 

 01223 494 444

Frank O'Donnell, Training Events Organiser