Thursday, March 26, 2020

Living in a Disaster Movie

At the start of every disaster movie, there’s a scientist being ignored. – internet meme

In 1983, I attended a lecture by Richard Leakey, a noted paleoanthropologist and son of Louis Leakey, discoverer of many of our extinct hominid ancestors. I distinctly remember an answer he gave during the Q&A session after his lecture, on the biggest threats to the human race. 

Instead of nuclear war, a very real threat at that time, he said the biggest threat would be a virulent disease that spread rapidly around the world because of the ease of international travel and trade. He predicted such an event almost 40 years ago. 

He thought the disease would be spawned in a hospital environment, where constant evolution of bacteria in response to antibiotics and antiseptics would create a superbug impervious to any known treatment.

Indeed, we now are faced with such a superbug – MRSA – a staph bacterium resistant to just about every known antibiotic. Although MRSA is now common, it does not spread easily throughout a population.

Turns out that the virulent “bug” about which Leakey warned us was not a bacterium, but a virus, which jumped from bats to mammals then to people. He was not right about the source, but was right about what could happen and indeed what did happen as COVID-19 crippled the world in a matter of weeks.

Public health experts and epidemiologists have warned us for decades that a dangerous and very contagious pandemic was not a matter of if, but when, because it had happened before.

Spanish flu, which probably originated in the US, spread like wildfire in the crowded conditions of cities, troop ships and the trenches of World War I Europe, sickening 500 million and killing anywhere from 17 to 50 million. Remember that this pandemic happened when the furthest an airplane could fly was a few hundred miles. World air travel was science fiction. 

Instead of preparing for this eventuality by stockpiling the materiel needed to fight a pandemic, putting policies in place to rapidly mobilize against it, and funding medical research to create potential cures, we have done the opposite since Leakey made his prediction. 

Public health programs have been cut or defunded to the point of extinction all over the US. Even now, medical research is the target of draconian cuts under the current administration.

Adding insult to injury - President Trump ignored warnings about what was going to happen for months, because he thought it would make him look bad and tank the economy, the one thing he had going for him to justify his re-election.

Well - how did that one work out?

Shortsighted does not even begin to describe government policies which put us into this mess, but pandemic response policies are just one half of the problem.
The other half is the lack of policies to prevent the eruption of such virulent diseases in the first place.

Let’s start with a question:  Why do so many of these viruses – Marburg, Ebola, SARS and now COVID-19 originate from bats? 

The reason is the same as why staph evolved to resist antibiotics. Bats have an immune system that’s very good at battling viruses, so the viruses keep evolving to get past the bat immune system, thus becoming more virulent.

How do bat viruses turn into people viruses? The path starts with the proximity of bats to other mammals which are then captured and consumed by people. In China, there are huge markets specializing in exotic animals that have contact with bats in the wild. COVID-19 is thought to have jumped to people from a critter known as a pangolin. 

The problem isn’t “bat soup” as Senator John Cornyn opined. Not sure that pangolin soup sounds any more appetizing, but I digress.

The Chinese government has known for years that such markets are a disease tinderbox just waiting to explode. It happened before with SARS. They could have shut down trade in exotic animal meat years ago, but didn’t because consuming such meat is a cultural norm in China. The government may be a communist autocracy, but they still don’t want to piss off their people. 

The Chinese government put shortsighted government policy in the name of political expediency over the welfare of their people. What’s worse is that when COVID-19 started to spread, they covered it up for the same reason. 

The science has always been clear. Viruses don’t give a damn about public perception.

There are so many threats to people and the world that scientific researchers have identified. Some of these threats are we cannot do anything about. If the Yellowstone supervolcano erupts or a large asteroid speeds in from the dark and hits the Earth at 30,000 miles an hour, it’s basically game over for civilization.

Others we can do something about, either to prevent them or to fight them, like pandemic disease.

It was politically expedient to ignore the scientific warnings about COVID-19. As a result, we are living in a disaster movie.