[Marxism] We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 28 13:23:47 MST 2020
NY Times Op-Ed, Jan. 28, 2020
We Made the Coronavirus Epidemic
By David Quammen
The latest scary new virus that has captured the world’s horrified
attention, caused a lockdown of 56 million people in China, disrupted
travel plans around the globe and sparked a run on medical masks from
Wuhan, Hubei Province, to Bryan, Texas, is known provisionally as
“nCoV-2019.” It’s a clunky moniker for a lurid threat.
The name, picked by the team of Chinese scientists who isolated and
identified the virus, is short for “novel coronavirus of 2019.” It
reflects the fact that the virus was first recognized to have infected
humans late last year — in a seafood and live-animal market in Wuhan —
and that it belongs to the coronavirus family, a notorious group. The
SARS epidemic of 2002-3, which infected 8,098 people worldwide, killing
774 of them, was caused by a coronavirus, and so was the MERS outbreak
that began on the Arabian Peninsula in 2012 and still lingers (2,494
people infected and 858 deaths as of November).
Despite the new virus’s name, though, and as the people who christened
it well know, nCoV-2019 isn’t as novel as you might think.
Something very much like it was found several years ago in a cave in
Yunnan, a province roughly a thousand miles southwest of Wuhan, by a
team of perspicacious researchers, who noted its existence with concern.
The fast spread of nCoV-2019 — more than 4,500 confirmed cases,
including at least 106 deaths, as of Tuesday morning, and the figures
will have risen by the time you read this — is startling but not
unforeseeable. That the virus emerged from a nonhuman animal, probably a
bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem
spooky, yet it is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.
One such scientist is Zheng-Li Shi, of the Wuhan Institute of Virology,
a senior author of the draft paper (not yet peer reviewed and so far
available only in preprint) that gave nCoV-2019 its identity and name.
It was Ms. Shi and her collaborators who, back in 2005, showed that the
SARS pathogen was a bat virus that had spilled over into people. Ms. Shi
and colleagues have been tracing coronaviruses in bats since then,
warning that some of them are uniquely suited to cause human pandemics.
In a 2017 paper, they set out how, after nearly five years of collecting
fecal samples from bats in the Yunnan cave, they had found coronaviruses
in multiple individuals of four different species of bats, including one
called the intermediate horseshoe bat, because of the half-oval flap of
skin protruding like a saucer around its nostrils. The genome of that
virus, Ms. Shi and her colleagues have now announced, is 96 percent
identical to the Wuhan virus that has recently been found in humans. And
those two constitute a pair distinct from all other known coronaviruses,
including the one that causes SARS. In this sense, nCoV-2019 is novel —
and possibly even more dangerous to humans than the other coronaviruses.
I say “possibly” because so far, not only do we not know how dangerous
it is, we can’t know. Outbreaks of new viral diseases are like the steel
balls in a pinball machine: You can slap your flippers at them, rock the
machine on its legs and bonk the balls to the jittery rings, but where
they end up dropping depends on 11 levels of chance as well as on
anything you do. This is true with coronaviruses in particular: They
mutate often while they replicate, and can evolve as quickly as a
Peter Daszak, the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a private research
organization based in New York that focuses on the connections between
human and wildlife health, is one of Ms. Shi’s longtime partners. “We’ve
been raising the flag on these viruses for 15 years,” he told me on
Friday with calm frustration. “Ever since SARS.” He was a co-author of
the 2005 bats-and-SARS study, and again of the 2017 paper about the
multiple SARS-like coronaviruses in the Yunnan cave.
Mr. Daszak told me that, during that second study, the field team took
blood samples from a couple of thousand Yunnanese people, about 400 of
whom lived near the cave. Roughly 3 percent of them carried antibodies
against SARS-related coronaviruses.
“We don’t know if they got sick. We don’t know if they were exposed as
children or adults,” Mr. Daszak said. “But what it tells you is that
these viruses are making the jump, repeatedly, from bats to humans.” In
other words, this Wuhan emergency is no novel event. It’s part of a
sequence of related contingencies that stretches back into the past and
will stretch forward into the future, as long as current circumstances
So when you’re done worrying about this outbreak, worry about the next
one. Or do something about the current circumstances.
Current circumstances include a perilous trade in wildlife for food,
with supply chains stretching through Asia, Africa and to a lesser
extent, the United States and elsewhere. That trade has now been
outlawed in China, on a temporary basis; but it was outlawed also during
SARS, then allowed to resume — with bats, civets, porcupines, turtles,
bamboo rats, many kinds of birds and other animals piled together in
markets such as the one in Wuhan.
Current circumstances also include 7.6 billion hungry humans: some of
them impoverished and desperate for protein; some affluent and wasteful
and empowered to travel every which way by airplane. These factors are
unprecedented on planet Earth: We know from the fossil record, by
absence of evidence, that no large-bodied animal has ever been nearly so
abundant as humans are now, let alone so effective at arrogating
resources. And one consequence of that abundance, that power, and the
consequent ecological disturbances is increasing viral exchanges — first
from animal to human, then from human to human, sometimes on a pandemic
We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbor so
many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many
unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and
send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose
from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host.
Often, we are it.
The list of such viruses emerging into humans sounds like a grim
drumbeat: Machupo, Bolivia, 1961; Marburg, Germany, 1967; Ebola, Zaire
and Sudan, 1976; H.I.V., recognized in New York and California, 1981; a
form of Hanta (now known as Sin Nombre), southwestern United States,
1993; Hendra, Australia, 1994; bird flu, Hong Kong, 1997; Nipah,
Malaysia, 1998; West Nile, New York, 1999; SARS, China, 2002-3; MERS,
Saudi Arabia, 2012; Ebola again, West Africa, 2014. And that’s just a
selection. Now we have nCoV-2019, the latest thump on the drum.
Current circumstances also include bureaucrats who lie and conceal bad
news, and elected officials who brag to the crowd about cutting forests
to create jobs in the timber industry and agriculture or about cutting
budgets for public health and research. The distance from Wuhan or the
Amazon to Paris, Toronto or Washington is short for some viruses,
measured in hours, given how well they can ride within airplane
passengers. And if you think funding pandemic preparedness is expensive,
wait until you see the final cost of nCoV-2019.
Fortunately, current circumstances also include brilliant, dedicated
scientists and outbreak-response medical people — such as many at the
Wuhan Institute of Virology, EcoHealth Alliance, the United States
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), the Chinese C.D.C.
and numerous other institutions. These are the people who go into bat
caves, swamps and high-security containment laboratories, often risking
their lives, to bring out bat feces and blood and other precious
evidence to study genomic sequences and answer the key questions.
As the number of nCoV-2019 cases has increased, and the death toll along
with it, one metric, the case fatality rate, has remained rather steady
so far: at about or below 3 percent. As of Tuesday, less than three out
of 100 confirmed cases had died. That’s relatively good luck — worse
than for most strains of influenza, better than for SARS.
This good luck may not last. Nobody knows where the pinball will go.
Four days from today, the number of cases may be in the tens of
thousands. Six months from today, Wuhan pneumonia may be receding into
memory. Or not.
We are faced with two mortal challenges, in the short term and the long
term. Short term: We must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm
and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this
nCoV-2019 outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global
pandemic. Long term: We must remember, when the dust settles, that
nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was —
it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.
David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include
“Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic.”
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