Pandemic Insurance Was Available. Why Didn’t Businesses Purchase It?

By James Ballot, Senior Advisor, Strategic Communications, Triple-I

Business interruption policies generally exclude losses from closures due to virus or bacteria. Yet insurance against losses due to a pandemic like COVID-19 did in fact exist well before the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the U.S. A recent Wired article, We Can Protect the Economy From Pandemics. Why Didn’t We? gives an in-depth look at the origins and development of pandemic insurance–and why it was ignored by business owners and risk managers who potentially stood to gain the most (or lose the least) from having it.

On the surface, the article’s author recounts the sort of innovation and ingenuity that most of us familiar with insurance can easily recognize. But just beneath is a fascinating glimpse at how insurers, virologists and epidemiologists, and data scientists devised ways to understand and rationalize the economics of outbreaks—and at the amazing race to quantify and price pandemic risks to bring an insurance product to market.

“Reinsurance is sometimes called the business of a hundred professions … you don’t just have mathematicians and lawyers and businessmen. You have former mining engineers. You have former captains who steered ships across the ocean. You have art experts who are specialized in art insurance. It is, if you like, always close to life.”

–from, We Can Protect the Economy From Pandemics. Why Didn’t We?

Like many significant advances, pandemic insurance started from a conventional, even humble proposition. In 2011, with the 2008 Ebola outbreak still fresh in the collective memory, Gunther Kraut, then a young quantitative analyst at Munich Re, studied ways for his firm to hedge its life insurance portfolio against a “one-in-500-year return period.”

Kraut later partnered with Nathan Wolfe, a globetrotting rock-star virologist, and Nita Madhav, an epidemiologist who’d spent 10 years modeling catastrophes for the insurance industry, to create what was essentially a new consciousness about pandemic risk—and tools to help mitigate potentially immense losses.

Without trifling, this is a gripping saga involving global NGOs, multinational corporate giants, visionary business derring-do, and catastrophic failures of the imagination. But from its pages, we get a fuller understanding of insurance as a pervasive force that, in spite of its sophistication, ubiquity and capacity for good, nevertheless sometimes bows to the principles of behavioral economics.