If hubris was a vaccine humans would be immune from just about any pathogen on Earth — but it’s not.
One of our biggest downfalls as a species is the fact we think bad things can’t happen to us because we are more intelligent than the rest of the flora, fauna, fungi and everything else with which we co-inhabit this Earth.
The biggest anthropological global reset in human history — the Black Plague — was in all likelihood caused by fleas living on the backs of rodents who spread it throughout Europe.
That’s 30 to 60 per cent of Europe’s population and a reduction of well over 10 per cent globally, as well as two centuries for the world population (and in many places, civilization) to recover.
All because some fleas carrying a deadly bacteria humans didn’t have antibodies for spread rapidly.
By now you’ve likely heard about the Novel Coronavirus (2019nCoV) that has been spreading throughout southeast Asia as well as in isolated clusters across the globe.
As of Monday morning the disease had officially infected close to 17,500.
I should start by saying I am fairly certain this virus isn’t going to be the end of civilization.
Though R0 value (the average number of people a person infected with the virus infects over the course of their illness) was very high during the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently estimated a factor of 1.4-2.5 for global outbreaks.
That’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. What that number means is that without a concerted effort by the various health authorities across the world, we could very well see this virus spread rapidly throughout the global population.
At least it’s hard to spread, right? Hopefully. According to the WHO the extent of human-to-human transmission is still not clear.
But it has to be extremely non-deadly to be able to spread that quickly and widely, doesn’t it?
From a biological standpoint it’s true that generally diseases that spread widely are less deadly (it’s not a great idea for a virus to kill 95 per cent of its hosts in 24 hours if it wants to be successful at replicating). However, it’s still uncertain what the chance of death is if you contract the disease. Of confirmed cases, approximately 25 per cent are reported to be severe. Of the 898 who had been admitted to hospitial with the disease and seen it through completely, 536 (~60 per cent) recovered while 362 (~40 per cent) died.
The death rate, of course, is not 40 per cent (there are many people who have gotten the disease and recovered at home), but what this means is that 2019nCoV takes a pretty long time to recover from. That means hospital visits and a lack of space are real possibilities within the future.
Still, there are too many unanswered questions for anyone (aside from the Communist Party of China) to really have a clear picture of the situation.
Is China being honest about the numbers it reports globally? What will the economic implications of a disrupted China mean to the rest of the world, which relies on it for everything from produce to steel to those 3M P95 dust masks which are currently unavailable anywhere locally?
This isn’t meant to scare you, but it should be painting a pretty grim picture and is all just to contextualize my main point.
2019nCoV will probably not eradicate us, but it has illustrated to us how simple it would be for a similar virus (one with a R0 value above 1.5, a long incubation period, symptoms that mimic common illness but with prolonged high lethality) to do just that.
Additionally, the interconnectedness of global society now versus when the Black Plague was ravaging Europe means a virus can spread much further with a relatively lower R0 value.
It wouldn’t even have to be super deadly, just bad enough to make a sufficient number of people sick (or scared enough of getting sick to stay at home) to disrupt the precious supply chain we all rely on without realizing.
Shipments begin to stall, surpluses are used up and soon enough the grocery store shelves are empty and the gas station pumps are bare.
Forget Coronavirus, that’s when the real suffering starts.