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Memories of the 28th Century

They Cried Wolf

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They Cried Wolf

If this upsets you, then I apologizes in advance.

Epidemiologists don't have huge amount of work, when there is no epidemic going on, so they plan for the next major pandemic and reflect on the last major pandemic. The model for a bad pandemic is still the Spanish Flu of 1918 (actually 1917, 1918, and 1919), and the expectation is for a pandemic that will be even deadlier, and at least 50 million died in that pandemic. And the response to Covid-19 was for a pandemic like that, rather than for a pandemic that is less dangerous than the ordinary seasonal influenza. In many ways, the response was a dress rehearsal for the really, really big one, which becomes more likely with every passing year, because population density is one of the factors that leads to major pandemics, and the population continues to grow.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time when someone tried to declare that the really big one was at hand. In 2002 there was SARS. In 2009 there was Swine Flu. Before that there was West Nile Disease, and other versions of influenza over the years. In the 1970's and later Lyme Disease appeared, and just a couple of years ago Zika appeared. Fortunately, Ebola has never broken out of Africa, and so far, every outbreak has been contained, so far.

There are a few characteristics that the Big One will have. Those include: Spread by aerosols, short incubation period, and it will have to be virulent and deadly. It probably will be a slightly mutated version of a disease that has been around before, but not so close that a past case will confer immunity to the new version, or it might be a disease that hasn't been in the wild recently. It is possible that Influenza will mutate again and return as a major pandemic. Smallpox is said to have been eradicated, but after that general vaccination was stopped, so Smallpox could return, and the population is not prepared for it, and it would take time for production of vaccine to restart. Smallpox had a mortality rate of about 30%; although the rate varied from place to place. Pneumonic Plague is another candidate, and with a mortality rate that approaches 100% if untreated, it would cut a wide swath.

The present restrictions on activities were designed for a disease that would be as contagious as Influenza and as deadly as Smallpox, and the restrictions would have helped, if a disease like that had arrived, but Covid-19 has a mortality rate that is much less than the Spanish Flu of 1918, so the more traditional methods of quarantining people coming into the country from places where the disease was active and tracking down contacts that active cases had should have worked quite nicely. Simply closing the borders to visitors would have eliminated most contagion from entering, but cat was let out of the bag, so extreme restrictions were tried instead.

The epidemiologists planning for the big one jumped the gun. They have been planning for a big pandemic, but they got a little one, and that is becoming clearer every day. I feel sorry for them, because they meant well, but they stumbled, when the disease turned out to be much less serious than they expected. It is not pleasant when people died from a disease, but it is part of life, and there will be other disease outbreaks in the future that will kill people. Everyone who knows anything about the matter realizes that a suitable reaction to an epidemic or pandemic will have a dramatic effect on the course of the disease. Another important factor is whether a closely related disease had gone through in the past that might have given immunity to people who survived the earlier disease. Coronavirus has been endemic; people have been catching and recovering from Coronavirus infection for a long time; most such infections were considered 'a cold'. In addition, in 2002 and 2003 SARS made a brief trip around the world, and it may have been in the wild for a longer time

It is nice that medical specialists think about and plan for unpleasant eventualities, but by warning about relatively minor threats is like the boy crying “Wolf!” When the real big one arrives, will the epidemiologists be believed? We will have to wait to see, but it is doubtful that the big one will be a coronavirus, because Coronavirus has been around before, and most people have some immunity to it. Similarly, Influenza is unlikely to be the big one for the same reason. We can be fairly certain that Ebola and similar diseases will not be the big one, and the same is true of HIV, because they are rather difficult to spread. I would be very concerned, if Smallpox were in the wild somewhere in the world, or is someone went into a bio-warfare lab and stole some. The other one that I find worrisome is Y. Pestis, which causes Plague, because it started out as soil bacteria, and it is endemic in rodents in various parts of the world, including the southwestern U.S.A. , where ground squirrels carry it, and in Central Asia, where it is endemic in gerbils. Smallpox is spread by person to person contact, and when that shows up again, I will become quite anti-social. Pneumonic Plague is spread by aerosols, and when that shows up again, I will consider a half mile to be close enough. But wait until something like that shows up before those anti-social distancing dances will be required.

The response should be proportionate, and closing down a country's economy for an epidemic that is less dangerous than ordinary Influenza is excessive. If Smallpox breaks loose, then we will have to quarantine everyone who had a contact, or who was in the region where the epidemic began..


  1. Danik 2016's Avatar
    It is a pandemic with lots of people dying from it. Which doesn´t exclude the possibility of greater ones in the future.
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    It is a minor outbreak of disease, and more people have died from flu this season than from coronavirus, but there no great noise about those people.