REMEMBER the 1970s television thriller, ‘Survivors’? The entire city remained glued to their screens, mesmerised by the intensity of the absorbing drama. The script and visuals then painted a dangerous future of our planet. The story begins after most of the world’s population were annihilated by an accidentally released virus, which unfortunately was the creation of Chinese scientists. The virus was hyper-virulent, killing 4,999 of every 5,000 people it infected. It was also hyper-transmissible and known to spread between people with ease and traversed the world with infected people on passenger airliners.
The unforgettable television series followed the fate of those few who survived the outbreak and the development of a post-apocalyptic society was more akin to Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, which depicted societal breakdown during a killer virus emanating from Hong Kong.
Mankind has always feared pestilence. After all, for most of humanity’s history, infections killed nearly everyone. Only in the past century or so have we been able to defeat an increasing number of the germs that afflict us and live long enough for our hearts to go wrong or our cells to become cancerous.
The occasional appearance of new germs into populations created ‘epidemics’, if within a limited geographical area, or ‘pandemics’, if they spread globally. Millions of people became infected simultaneously, often dying as their immune systems struggled in the face of new pathogens. Plague, for example, caused by bacteria and spread by fleas, was probably transmitted to humans in the early 14th century, when the normal rodent hosts of the bacteria had moved to urban centres in north-eastern China as global warming turned their grassland habitats arid. Within a few decades, the plague spread widely through traders travelling the Silk Road. It killed a third of Europe’s population in 1346–1353.
In 2020, we are once again gripped by the news that a virus, previously unknown to mankind, which appeared among a small group of people who visited a fish and wild animal market in Wuhan, China, is now spreading globally. The Wuhan virus, officially named 2019-nCoV, belongs to the same ‘coronavirus’ group as Sars, severe acute respiratory syndrome virus, and Mers, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus.
Sars emerged in southern China in 2002 and spread rapidly, ultimately killing around 10 per cent of the 8,273 people afflicted. It triggered a global effort to contain its spread, including airport closures in the cities most affected by the disease. Sars appeared suddenly, entering humans via aerosols created by infected civet cats, sold as food on the rural market. The civet cats themselves contracted the virus from bats.
Mers, as its name suggests, was first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012. To date, around 2,500 cases have been reported and around a third of those diagnosed with the disease have died. All cases are associated with the Middle East and either occur there or among people who have visited endemic countries. Camels appear to carry the virus and are suspected to be its reservoir although camels probably also initially contracted the virus from its natural bat hosts. How it is transmitted to humans is not clear and the spread of its disease has been limited. Like Mers and Sars, the Wuhan virus causes problems in the respiratory tract and deaths have resulted from pneumonia.
The deadly Ebola virus kills around half of those who are afflicted. Ebola, which is transmitted through body fluids, causes victims to bleed to death from the inside. The 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa killed more than 11,000 of its 28,000 or so victims. The virus only occasionally reaches humans from its normal bat hosts.
The swine flu epidemic of 2009–10, caused by the so-called H1N1 strain of the flu virus — the H and N types relate to molecules on the virus’s surface — caused much concern. However, although it spread widely, up to one in five of the world’s population were infected, it was nowhere near as virulent as early reports in Mexico suggested. Around one in 5,000 victims died, which compares favourably to normal annual flu death rates.
However, we remain terrified of other flu strains, not least the H5N1 and H7N9 varieties that first appeared in humans, having been contracted from birds in 2003 and 2013. H5N1 has killed more than 60 per cent of its 893 victims and H7N9 around 400 of the 1,000 or so affected so far. Neither virus transmits readily between humans. But flu viruses mix and match their genetic material with ease and the real risk lies in a hybrid virus, possessing the hyper-virulence of H5N1 and the easy spreading features of H1N1. Millions will die fairly swiftly should that virus be born.
The Wuhan coronavirus is spreading far too quickly. Having first been reported on December 31, 2019, as of today there over 600 patients and the number of reported deaths has, extraordinarily so, nearly doubled from 9 to 17 merely in the time it has taken to write this article. The first cases in the US, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong and South Korea have been reported.
The World Health Organisation is hosting an emergency meeting this week to discuss the global response. Similarities to Sars are clear and measures taken to prevent its spread in 2003 are likely to guide recommendations. If the number of cases in China continue to increase sharply over the next few day, the likely consequences will include airport closures and the screening of individuals travelling from Wuhan and heavily burdened hospitals.
The Chinese government has already advised against travel to and from Wuhan, a city with a population of more than nine million people. Passengers on flights from Wuhan are being screened for high temperatures that might indicate infection in the United States and the United Kingdom; and North Korea has barred tourists entering the country.
In just nine days, the Chinese authorities used genetic sequencing techniques to identify the virus while the first efforts to develop a vaccine for a disease that was unknown just two weeks ago have already begun. The World Health Organisation is likely to consider whether to declare a global emergency, something that took many months in the case of Sars, and authorities in many countries are preparing to implement the lessons learnt from that previous outbreak.
As with Sars, Mers, Ebola and bird flu, 2019-nCoV is not going to kill 499 of every 500 people it infects nor is it going to spread as rapidly or far as the fictional virus of survivors. As well as remembering our capacity to intervene, we can be confident that the apocalypse is not here just yet. But the world is getting scarier by the day.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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