Monday, March 09, 2020

how the pandemic began

The time my features spend in limbo between submission and publication is 18 days, and a lot of things can happen in that time span if you have a virus outbreak becoming a pandemic. Thus, when I'm trying to address the corona crisis in a feature I cannot say much about the current events or what people should do about them, but what I can write about is how and why the problem originated, and in this context I can think of lots of things that people shouldn't have been doing, and which contributed to this virus becoming a problem. Like hunting endangered pangolins and selling them on markets.

Virus diseases like SARS, MERS, and the various brands of flu come from animals, they are zoonoses, and the first time they spread in a human population that hasn't been exposed to them before, they can be quite devastating. Over time, human populations build up a level of immunity, and the viruses mutate a bit, so both sides learn to live with each other.

For my feature I looked at the animal sources of the recent coronavirus outbreaks (SARS, MERS and Covid-19) and kept discovering shockingly stupid things that people do with animals. The trouble is that in this day and age, everybody in the world is connected to Wuhan in China through a very short chain of contacts. So if people insist on selling palm civets, pangolins, bats and snakes on a market in Wuhan, this is not just a conservation problem, it is a danger to the whole globalised human population.

Conversely, if you want to run a global economic system, you'd better not make it too dependent on a place where people do stupid things to wild animals or live very closely with their domesticated poultry, which has the habit of breeding new flu strains.

So, well, my slightly more coherent thoughts on this are in the feature which is out today (although the scale of the crises has worsened since I wrote the first para, the title is still true):

Virus outbreak crosses boundaries


Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 5, 09 March 2020, Pages R191-R194

Open access (as part of the Cell Press Covid-19 policy)





This illustration shows the ultrastructural morphology of the novel coronavirus responsible for the 2019–2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease. (Photo: Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAM.)

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PS Here I'll collect some of the important things I've learned since submitting the piece, mainly concerning the public health aspect:

* Why large events should be cancelled sooner rather than later becomes obvious if you look at this analysis of the 1918 Spanish flu - PNAS paper from 2007, Fig 1 in particular has been widely shared.

* Cell Press journals have combined their Coronavirus publications in this Open Access Resource Hub

* see my blog entry on the disastrous UK govt response from March 22nd for further new developments.

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