The latest issue of the New Yorker asks the question that many of us have asked ourselves: Why weren’t we ready for the coronavirus?
My reaction when I read the article was that those of us who have warned for years of coming respiratory pandemics were finally no longer alone. Though my colleagues and I each hold different fears of what nature has in store for us, my own pet fear is a reprise of an entirely new variant of influenza. Such an epidemic could kill 1 to 2 billion – not a misprint on the billion – assuming our post COVID-19 world looks much like what our pre-COVID world looked like.
The New Yorker article traces the deep roots of inaction not only in the United States but throughout the world. After all, it was lack of preparedness in China that allowed the pandemic to emerge. That the virus has spread so widely is not China’s problem, it is the problem of all nations that ignored the persistent warnings that an outbreak was imminent, warnings delivered in powerful and popular books, films and TV programs, as well as in defense department and intelligence briefs.
Post 9/11 and SARS, all of our defense agencies carried out war game equivalents to model a highly transmissible, lethal virus pandemic. The consequences we witness today were all predicted accurately. Even the movie Contagion got it right, right down to the bats being the cause of the contagion. Only the truly ignorant can argue that COVID-19 was unpredictable.
The first warning I sounded of another pandemic came thirty five years ago in testimony to the United States Senate. It came at the beginning of the greatest pandemic of our time, HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 30 million people and currently affects another 40 million worldwide. We are still not beyond that pandemic. For those of you who doubt its power, know that on a visit to Durban, South Africa three years ago I discovered that 70% (again not a misprint-70%) of young women between the ages of 25-25 were infected by HIV.
To be one of many ignored prophets-in-our-own-time is not a happy feeling. It is deeply frustrating to know that very few, perhaps as few as ten people, needed to have died from COVID-19 before we could have stopped the infection in its tracks. If we had stockpiled one of the several anti-SARS drugs discovered in the early 2000s (as we stockpile drugs to protect us from bioterrorists) we could have administered it prophylactically to all those in contact with the first cases. That would have stopped the infection cold. China doesn’t have it handy. We don’t, no-one does. A massive collective failure.
What happened? Those drugs lay dusty on the shelves in China, in Singapore, in Hong Kong, in Europe, in the United States, and in the Emirates and Saudi where they were discovered and shown to work in animal models of both SARS and MERS. We now know many work against SARS-CoV-2 at least in the test tube. Only now,15 years later are they being frantically resurrected. Talk about an opportunity missed. What hurts more is that those who developed that anti-SARS and anti-MERS drug knew what they had. They warned repeatedly that another coronavirus infection was imminent and that drugs, if stockpiled, could save us. How terrible that foreknowledge is as we see hundreds of thousands die and many millions infected.
Governments and some of the most well-intentioned citizens around the world are good a saying “Let us never need say never again?” But we fail collectively in undertaking the necessary action to assure that predictable calamities do not strike again and yet again.