Our National, Month-Long, Unplanned Mandatory Seminar on Virology, Bats, China, and Public Health

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Medical personnel wearing protective face masks at the Spedali Civili hospital in Brescia, Italy, March 13, 2020. (Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters)

A quick rundown on what we’ve learned, in just the past four weeks . . .

Getting to “herd immunity” is not going to be quick or easy and is going to involve a lot more Americans dying. Any path ahead involves more Americans dying from coronavirus.

The virus could have jumped to humans from a natural encounter with a bat, a farmer collecting guano to use as fertilizer, a bat or pangolin caught for consumption at a wet market, or either of the two labs in Wuhan that were researching coronaviruses in bats. (That last option does not mean it was engineered in a lab.) All of those scenarios involve the Chinese government’s recklessly permitting behavior that increased the likelihood and severity of a pandemic. Scientists have been warning about bats as natural reservoirs of contagious viruses that can kill human beings for at least 15 years.

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At least as of this week, the vast majority of U.S. hospitals are not overwhelmed. New York City, northern New Jersey, and Detroit endured really rough patches, and there’s reason to be somewhat worried about Prince George’s County, Maryland, right now. Everywhere else seems to be doing just well enough right now or better, which is not quite the same as saying we’re out of the woods.

Some of what happens from here on out depends upon random chance. If the virus spreads more in younger, healthier, less densely-populated communities, we will generally be okay. If the virus spreads more in older, less healthy, and more densely-populated communities, we will see the death toll rise quickly. No model can perfectly account for the range of outcomes.

During the last SARS outbreak — largely ignored in the United States because it occurred around the same time as the invasion of Iraq — the Chinese government initially denied the problem, tried to cover it up, lied about how fast SARS was spreading, ordered doctors to lie to the World Health Organization, barred a WHO team from visiting the sites of the outbreak, and made a bad situation much worse out of a blinding obsession with not “losing face.” Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it on a ventilator.

Things could still get much worse: recurring waves of infections and quarantines, a year or more until we can have mass gatherings, an unbearable number of untimely deaths, some who survive having to live with serious lingering health complications, an exhausted health-care system full of burned-out doctors, nurses, and staffers, and much more economic pain than the Great Recession.

Laboratory accidents involving dangerous pathogens happen with surprising and some would say unnerving frequency, even in the best labs with the most highly-trained personnel.

In 2014, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced a “pause” on all federally funded research that included certain gain-of-function experiments with influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses, contending that concerns about safety and accidental releases needed to be addressed. That “pause” ended in 2017 with new rules and guidelines. One of the research projects that was allowed to continue by the NIH developed a hybrid virus combining the traits of SARS and other another type of coronavirus; the project was a partnership between the University of North Carolina, several other schools and institutions, and two scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Two laboratories in Wuhan, China were researching coronaviruses in bats, and around the time the first cases arose in the city, a job notice at the Wuhan Institute of Virology announced: “a large number of new bat and rodent new viruses have been discovered and identified.”

New York City’s particular difficulties in handling coronavirus cases were exacerbated by the fact that Mayor de Blasio and other city officials spent January and February telling New Yorkers to continue their routines or behaviors, and told city residents “to not avoid restaurants, not avoid normal things that people do. . . . If you’re not sick, you should be going about your life.”

Since at least late December, and probably earlier, Chinese authorities publicly insisted the virus was not contagious to humans, silenced doctors who said otherwise, and took minimal steps to quarantine the contagious, more or less dooming the rest of the world to a global pandemic.

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