The End of Epidemics. By Jonathan Quick. St Martin’s Press; 304 pages; $26.99

EPIDEMICS have plagued humanity since the dawn of settled life. Yet success in conquering them remains patchy. That is because the standard response, in the words of the World Bank’s president Jim Yong Kim, is a cycle of “panic, neglect, panic, neglect”.

It need not be that way, argues Jonathan Quick in “The End of Epidemics”. A doctor and a public-health veteran who has worked in more than 70 countries and at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Mr Quick rounds up examples of failures and triumphs to show what stops epidemics from flaring up.

Experts predict that a global one that could kill more than 300m would come round in the next 20 to 40 years. What pathogen would cause it is anybody’s guess. Chances are that it will be a virus that lurks in birds or mammals, or one that that has not yet hatched. The scariest are both highly lethal and spread easily between humans. Thankfully, bugs that excel at one tend to be weak at the other. But mutations—ordinary business for germs—can change that in a blink. And when humans get too close to beasts, wild or packed in farms, an animal disease can become a human one.

A front-runner for global pandemics is the seasonal influenza virus, which mutates so much that a vaccine must be custom-made every year. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, which killed 50m to 100m people, was a potent version of the “swine flu” that emerged in 2009. The H5N1 “avian flu” strain, deadly in 60% of cases, came about in the 1990s when a virus that sickened birds made the jump to a human. Ebola, HIV and Zika took a similar route.

That bio-terrorists will unleash lethal spores such as anthrax or a contagious virus such as smallpox is not a question of “if” but “when”, an expert tells Mr Quick. A bio-manual was found on a laptop belonging to ISIS; al-Qaeda has been recruiting for “brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry”. Samples of the world’s most dangerous microbes are kept in ultra-secure labs. But it may be naive to believe they are all watertight against rogue employees or accidents.

What to do? Mr Quick prescribes seven things, none of them new or surprising: systems that can rapidly detect and smother an outbreak, accurate and timely information about threats, and so on. What makes the book a good, highly readable primer are its convincing examples and vivid human stories. Any doubt that an epidemic’s toll ends with the last person sickened is shattered by the story of Salome Karwah, a Liberian nurse who was featured on the cover of TIME magazine honouring the Ebola fighters as “person of the year”. She was left to die in childbirth for fear that she could pass on Ebola—even though she had survived the disease and was thus immune.

The book’s prescriptions would cost $7.5bn per year—small change from the $1.6 trillion spent in 2016 on military defence. Each $1 spent on preventive measures would save $3-10 later. A universal flu vaccine discovery, for example, would obviate the need for annual flu jabs. Yet in America and at the WHO, the departments in charge of epidemic readiness are often first in line when budget cuts are in order. Mr Quick likens that to closing the fire department just because there has not been a conflagration for a while.