Containment, Covid, and Pandemics

Some readers of CONTAINMENT have recently asked me: “How did you know?”

They seemed to suggest that I had prior knowledge about the global pandemic that started three years after the 2017 publication of CONTAINMENT. Preposterous, of course. But, like many scientists, I worried that a highly communicable disease might rage through an unprepared world. There are simply too many dangerous pathogens out there. Humans now routinely venture into areas where deadly, novel diseases lurk. And rapid international travel has made the world a very small place.

Today, two years after COVID-19 burst out, the world is reeling. The coronavirus has reportedly killed over five million global citizens. We all know someone who has suffered from the disease, or even died. It’s possible that most of us will come down with some variant of COVID.

But it could be much, much worse.

Consider the 1918 Spanish flu. That pandemic took perhaps 50-100 million lives—between three and five percent of the world’s population then. Compare that with about 5.5 million deaths from COVID-19—only seven hundredths of one percent of the people on earth today. Fortunately, modern medical care and new vaccines and treatments have greatly improved outcomes from the coronavirus.

But there are even more deadly diseases out there, some of which have no antidotes. Try Googling “most lethal human diseases.” Guaranteed to keep you awake at night. Consider influenza. Like coronavirus, the flu virus can be highly contagious and spread through the air. It presents in many different forms, so vaccines struggle to keep up with the latest variant. And flu can be much deadlier than COVID: One recent avian influenza strain has killed half of all infected persons. Similarly, up to 40 percent of symptomatic individuals die from the tick-borne disease, Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever. That virus has no vaccine.

I pose a question: If a new pandemic broke out that was far more lethal than COVID, would the world be prepared? And how would we react? CONTAINMENT, with a hypothetical viral disease far more lethal than COVID-19, imagined draconian lockdowns, riots, and the near collapse of society. Given our recent experience, is this far-fetched? I leave it to you to ponder.

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