At his daily coronavirus briefings, President Trump always mentions the tally of nations that have now been afflicted with this nasty virus, pauses to marvel at the global reach of the pandemic and then adds:
“Nobody saw this coming.”
This is his counterpoint to the conflagration America is now confronting, with a life or death race to triple ICU beds in the exploding hot zones of New York City and Northern NJ. They’re building a field hospital next to MetLife Stadium, where the Giants play.
Doctors and nurses desperately are pleading for thousands of ventilators and protective gear to replace a dwindling supply that is the only thing standing between the 20 million people living in the New York Metropolitan Area and the catastrophic collapse of its hospital system.
In Elmhurst, Queens, not far from where President Trump grew up, they backed a huge refrigeration truck—the kind they use to carry slaughtered beef to markets—up to the loading dock of the borough’s largest hospital. The truck will serve as a temporary morgue, augmenting the hospital’s morgue, which already is filled to capacity.
The rate of what the scientists call the exponential geometric progression of the coronavirus skyrocketed in New Orleans after city officials inexplicably decided to let the good times roll on Bourbon St. on Fat Tuesday, putting NOLA in the same predicament as NYC, but with far fewer resources to deal with it.
“Nobody saw this coming” also seems like an excuse for our stunning failure to use the interregnum before the outbreak—those precious weeks in January, February and earlier this month, when we could indeed see what was coming from China and Italy—to prepare for what was on its way to America.
In fairness to the president, let’s stipulate up front that this was a collective failure which coincided—at least from Jan. 16 to Feb. 5—with our national preoccupation with the impeachment trial of Donald Trump.
We failed to enact a containment strategy, as they have to great success in South Korea and Japan. Both countries deployed aggressive testing immediately at the beginning of the outbreak and used this information for targeted quarantines.
At the same time that we completely dropped the ball on testing and containment, we failed to surge our emergency medical capacity, especially in our most densely populated regions in NY-NJ and on the West Coast.
And, in our moment of maximum peril in the United States—in a breathtaking display of disregard for the public welfare—a handful of cynical politicians and pundits are trying to spark a debate over the wisdom of a stay-in-place lockdown to flatten the curve of the outbreak. TX Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick actually suggested yesterday that the grandmas and grandpas of the Lone Star State would be willing to die to keep the economy going.
President Trump said he wants Americans to pour into churches on Easter Sunday—less than three weeks from now—heralding the resurrection of the American economy that he predicts will happen the following day as workers flock back to their jobs and the engine of the U.S. economy roars back to life like the ignition of a Saturn V rocket.
Fortunately for us, the big guy from Queens has a little guy from Brooklyn standing behind him, reminding everyone that the bug will ignore our deadlines because it’s got its own calendar.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has been leading America’s fight against infectious diseases for more than three decades. During the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Fauci backed the combination therapy designed by Dr. David Ho, which transformed HIV from a certain death sentence to a chronic but manageable condition.
[Dr. Ho, TIME magazine’s 1996 Man of the Year, developed protease inhibitors that make it harder for HIV to attach itself to human cells and replicate. He is now working to adapt these antiviral drugs to work on COVID-19, with funding from China’s leading tech billionaire, Jack Ma.]
Dr. Fauci knows that the coronavirus is a piece of recombinant DNA that is programmed to do only one thing: to jump from host to host, making billions of copies of itself along the way. It doesn’t have a brain. If we stop moving, the bug will stop moving. When it does, we can isolate it and begin to stamp it out.
“We don’t set the timeline, the virus sets the timeline,” Dr. Fauci said.
Regarding the president’s mantra that “nobody saw this coming,” it’s not too hard to prove that somebody did.
In 1975, Laurie Garrett was a grad student working towards a doctorate in the Department of Bacteriology and Immunology at the University of California in Berkeley when she started reporting on science news for the radio station KPFA.
Garrett never got her PhD, but her hobby soon became a career in broadcast and print journalism, focused on public health issues, that netted her a closet full of top awards, including a 1977 Peabody Award in Broadcasting, two George Polk Awards for Foreign Reporting and a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 1996.
In 1995, Garrett wrote a 768-page tome entitled The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.
The Coming Plague offered a stark warning that the encroachment of humans into every nook and cranny of the natural world—combined with modern conveniences such as air travel—had placed humanity directly in the crosshairs of a catastrophic global pandemic. It was only a matter of time, she told us.
In easy-to-understand language, Garrett took her readers on a tour of the cumulative knowledge about virus behavior scientists had managed to glean in the 50 years since these pathogens became a focus of modern medicine in the middle of the 20th century. The scary answer: not much.
In the 1950s, the scientists viewed viruses the same way the generals viewed the Red Army: these pathogens needed to be contained until we could come up with a weapon to wipe them out.
The ‘50s saw the emergence of more than one type of weapon of mass destruction; a doctor named Jonas Salk dared to experiment with a polio vaccine produced from a weakened form of the live virus and a dictator named Joseph Stalin ordered Salk’s miracle cure to be tested on thousands of “volunteers” in the USSR. Polio was cured.
The ‘50s scientists thought viruses were a finite set of villains, easy-to-identify fiends like smallpox, measles and polio. They thought all of these invisible pathogens had existed for eons and had never changed. They thought if they cornered them and eradicated them, one by one with vaccines, we could wipe them off the face of the earth (or at least send them back under the rock from which they came).
The scientists were wrong. In the 1970s and 1980s, they discovered how little we really knew about viruses. Two deadly viruses, Ebola and HIV, emerged from the heart of Africa, and another was discovered in the water dripping from an air-conditioning unit on the roof of a hotel in Philadelphia that was hosting an American Legion convention (they called it Legionnaire’s Disease).
Garrett vividly recounts the growing concern of researchers in the emerging field of gene-sequencing as they realized that the scourges of Ebola and AIDS had resulted from viruses that had jumped the species barrier, leaping from primates like monkeys and orangutans to humans in chance encounters and then combining with human cells to form the recombinant DNA of a new pathogen that is deadly to humans.
As every fan of the science fiction B-movie genre knows, jumping the species barrier was just the big shock in the opening reel. The really spooky stuff begins when the virus starts mutating.
The scientists who raced to find treatments for AIDS and Ebola—always aiming for the Holy Grail of a one-shot-cures-all vaccine—soon realized that many viruses are constantly mutating; they can evolve into new strains during the same outbreak, increasing the odds that it might not be possible to create vaccines that could be effective against all of these strains (as it currently is not possible to do with the flu; each year, infectious disease specialists must guess which strain of the flu will predominate in the coming season and tailor a vaccine against it—when they guess wrong, the outbreak is much worse).
[Editor’s Note: scientists have indicated that they have not detected significant mutations in COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak in China, which may make the coronavirus a good target for a vaccine.]
Garrett’s book details how the scientists began to understand that a tiny mutation in a strain that had previously not been a threat to humans could create a deadly pathogen with the potential to spawn a global pandemic. They also discovered that viruses that are hosted by creatures who are not mammals—birds, bats, snakes, etc.—can jump the species barrier with particularly devastating effect on homo sapiens who have never been exposed to them.
The 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, which killed an estimated 40 million people worldwide, was long believed to have originated in a bird flu that morphed into a strain that infected humans. A couple of years ago, a specimen from well-preserved human remains that emerged from melting permafrost in Lapland proved that the 1918 pandemic was indeed caused by avian flu.
The prime suspect for the vector of the COVID-19 pandemic is a pangolin, an ugly anteater with scales that are considered herbal remedies in China (the meat also is considered a delicacy). Pangolin scales and meat were sold at the bustling food market in Wuhan, a city of 10 million, that was ground zero of the pandemic. The market sits across the street from the largest train station in Central China.
Garrett’s book painted a scary diorama of invisible shape-shifting viruses that live in creatures crawling around beneath our feet, waiting to hitch a ride on the human race and wreak havoc on our lives. Human behavior big and small put us in the crosshairs of these germs, she explained, including big stuff like our invasive encroachment onto the terrain of all other species and vulnerabilities like the ever-increasing speed of public transportation.
Some seemingly quaint social customs also put a bullseye on our back, she told us, like the keeping of ducks and pigs in neighboring pens throughout China, which creates a batting cage for minor league bugs that want to sharpen their swings for the majors.
During the most devastating pandemic of the 20th century, it took months for the virus to make its way around the world. In 1918, the Spanish flu (which didn’t originate in Spain) was carried by troops from a U.S. Army base in Kansas onto ships and over to Europe in a slow voyage across the ocean.
The Coming Plague sounded the alarm that the next pandemic would be traveling first class in an aluminum tube jetting from continent to continent in a matter of hours.
[We’ve now seen this with COVID-19, which has hopped around the world by hitching a ride on everyone from globe-trotting tourists in Venice to pilgrims at Iran’s most-revered Islamic religious site to tony party-goers who apparently had a big soiree in Westport, CT a few weeks ago and then jetted off to their homes all over the planet—an event for which they all will forevermore be known as “the super spreaders.”]
Laurie Garrett warned us that in the upcoming heavyweight championship fight between humans and viruses for global hegemony, the bugs were poised to win in a first-round knockout.
The Coming Plague deserved a place on the shelf next to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1963 classic, Silent Spring, which warned about the collateral damage caused by the use of pesticides in agriculture. Carson’s work led to a global ban on the use of DDT.
But Garrett’s book did not have the same impact as Carson’s.
In the decades after it was published, bugs related to the common cold mutated to produce deadly respiratory diseases which emerged in Asia and the Middle East, respectively. In the first few weeks of the outbreaks that became known as SARS and MERS, it seemed that Garrett’s prediction of a global catastrophe might be upon us, but these would-be pandemics didn’t pan out.
The limited quarantines that worked to stem the spread of SARS and MERS were quickly forgotten, and a world that at one point seemed like it might be ready to take Garrett’s urgent warning seriously moved on to what it considered more pressing concerns.
The threat of a pandemic barely registered on the radar of public perception when COVID-19 showed up. Now it’s up to us to face the showdown that Laurie Garrett warned us was coming.
Let’s freeze in place America—and let’s watch this stupid bug stop moving along with us, its momentum halted and its reason to exist eliminated.
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