We all know I have lots of interests in a variety of things. And when something piques my curiosity, I have to research it to death. You also know that sometimes my interests in something has to be shared. The newest scariest thing has come along and it’s a virus. Viruses and bacteria have a special place of interest for me. After all, plague happens.
In 1997, I was a junior in high school and took a class in genetics. Turns out while I’m not keen on all biology, I love the amazing things DNA does. So, when you take a high school or intro college class in genetics you learn a lot about a few things; flies, bacteria, and viruses. To the average person this is a weird combination, but flies have very short life spans and reproduce very quickly, meaning a student of genetics can study a colony of fruit flies for two weeks and see mutations to the flies and their DNA rather quickly. And it’s a lot safer than handling viruses and bacteria. To study those, you read books and study a lot of diagrams on print outs, but like fruit flies the DNA of viruses and bacteria mutate very quickly a few generations of a virus or bacteria can be produced in hours, not days, not years, not millenia.
Most mutations in viruses and bacteria are like mutations in fruit flies, relatively harmless. But every so often, a mutation occurs and reproduces and it’s a serious problem. My genetics teacher was the first person to suggest to me that the Black Death unlike other strains of Yersinia Pestis was probably communicable person to person. That was a mind blowing thought for me. I loved history and few things are as historical significant as the Black Death. And if Y. Pestis could be passed person to person instead of needing fleas to transmit it, well that would explain a lot. For instance, if it only became communicable after leaving Asia, that explains why China was hit with plague in the 13th and 14th century, but wasn’t decimated like Europe was in the 14th and 15th centuries were. Now, Y. Pestis is a bacteria and for the last 150 years or so, our greatest problems have occured with viruses. They mutate with similar rapidity and frequency though. And nearly everyone has heard of the Black Death, while fewer are familiar with the Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1920.
We’re going to need two terms: Epidemic is a large localized outbreak of an infectious disease (think a country). Pandemic is a worldwide outbreak of an infectious disease. Our last pandemic was 2009 and like Spanish Flu it was a mutation of the H1N1 influenza virus. It should be noted that the Spanish Flu pandemic was also the H1N1 influenza virus, but the DNA had mutated enough that it was not the “exact” same influenza virus that caused the 2009-2010 pandemic. If you’d gotten a flu shot in 2009 and it contained the influenza virus that caused Spanish Flu in 1918, which was H1N1, you would not have had immunity to swine flu – just a fun fact for you. Of viruses, influenza has caused the most pandemics because it is communicable person to person and highly contagious.
In 2003, we thought the next great plague had hit. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first diagnosed in China. It is caused by a coronavirus and was apparently the first of big 3 coronavirus migrations from animals to humans. SARS has mortality rate of 14-15% which is fairly high for a virus. For the elderly and immunocompromised the mortality rate is closer to 50%, which is exceptionally high for a virus. When cases of SARS began popping up in Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia in 2004 and 2005, it was predicted to become a pandemic. For some reason, it didn’t happen. Outside of China in the sixteen years since SARS became a problem there have only been a total of 8,000 cases in 25 countries.
The second great migration was in 2010 when Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) sprang up. MERS is also a coronavirus, although not the same one that causes SARS. And while it is communicable, like SARS, it is not as communicable and it never worried anyone of becoming pandemic. As a matter of fact in the 10 years since it was discovered there have been less than 3,000 total cases and it has affected just 15 countries.
Finally, the third great migration; Wuhan Coronavirus. As of January 25, 2020, it has been known to man for a month and has infected nearly 2,000 people, killing 56 while almost 300 are in ICUs. And worldwide cases are already on the rise as well. In the US, there are 62-65 suspected cases (this varies by source hence the range) and at least 2 confirmed cases. I’m less concerned about the spread, although I believe it would kill me, than most people.
My concern is the sudden emergence of coronaviruses as the enemy. In less than 20 years, 3 coronaviruses have gone from zoonotic viruses to human communicable viruses. That’s a lot. I actually went looking for a comparison and couldn’t find one. In just 14 years we’ve been hit with 3 brand new viruses. I don’t know if we will get control over Wuhan Coronavirus before it goes pandemic, but I suspect we will. Primarily because the virus makes it hard to breathe and that will send people to an ER faster than most illnesses. In the US and UK even the suspected cases are being quarantined and communicable disease protocols are being enacted. This includes tracing a person’s steps for X number of days to see who they interacted with and quarantining them to their house for a certain period to see if symptoms develop.