Robin Marantz Henig
In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, I could not bear to read about our early collective mistakes. Not just because the implicit rebuke felt futile — what was the point of knowing that the grim reality we were living could have been avoided? - But because, in my case, it felt deeply personal. Every article I read about ignoring the warning signs of a new destructive virus reminded me that decades ago, scientists were worried about it, and some science journalists had written about the scientists' alarm. I was one of them.
When I started researching this in 1990, the term "developing viruses" had just been coined by a young virologist, Stephen Morse. He would become the main character in my book A Dancing Matrix, published three years later. I then described him as an assistant professor: honest, with glasses, a man who lived life mostly in mind.
Morse and other scientists were identifying conditions - climate change, massive urbanization, the proximity of humans to farms or wildlife that were viral reservoirs - that could release microbes that had never been seen in humans and therefore were extremely deadly. They were warning that, thanks to an ever-increasing global economy, the ease of international air travel, and the movement of refugees due to famine and war, these deadly pathogens could easily spread throughout the world. Sounds familiar?
"The only major threat to continued human dominance on the planet is the virus." In the presentation of my book I used that bold quote from Joshua Lederberg, a molecular biologist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on bacteria. At the time I thought Lederberg might be a little melodramatic. Now his saying strikes me as extremely current and foreshadowing.
When the number of deaths in the US from COVID-19 had not yet reached a thousand and three days had passed when our governor had called us New Yorkers to stay home, I called Morse to see how he was feeling. He teaches epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and is now at the age of those most affected by the worst effects of the coronavirus. (I am too.) He and his wife self-quarantined their Manhattan apartment, just a few miles from mine.
"I am discouraged, yes, when I see that we are no longer prepared after all this, and that we are still in denial," Morse said. He even mentioned a favorite quote from management guru Peter Drucker, who was once asked, "What's the worst mistake you can make?" His response, according to Morse, was: "To be right ahead of time."
Morse and I were not right, ahead of time or not. No one had found it. When I was asked on my book presentation tour what the next pandemic would be, I said most of my expert sources believed it would be the flu. "I never liked lists," Morse told me during our call; he said he always knew the next epidemic could come from anywhere. But in the early 1990s he and his colleagues tended to focus on the flu, as did I. Maybe it was wrong; if the next pandemic were the flu, it would not cause much alarm. Flu? People get it every year. We have a vaccine for it.
So it was probably easy to ignore the warnings as "just a flu", or a writer's catastrophic thought. But other journalists were writing similar books, and some of them were bestsellers, like Richard Preston's "Hot Zone," and Laurie Garrett's "The Next Epidemic," which came out a year after my book. We all described the same gloomy scenarios, the same war games, the same calls that were unprepared. Why not enough?
Man Edwin Kilbourne may have had something to say about this. One of the chief vaccine researchers, at a conference in the mid-1980s, Kilbourne devised a scenario for a terrifying quality virus that would make it extremely contagious, extremely deadly, and very difficult to control. He called it an "extremely malignant monster virus," or MMMV. As Kilbourne described it, it would be transmitted into the air like the flu, be stable in the environment like polio, and insert its genes directly into the cell nucleus, like HIV.
The new coronavirus is not Kilbourne MMV, but it has many of its scariest qualities. It is transmitted to the air, replicated in the lower respiratory tract, and thought to last for days in the environment. In addition people may have mild signs or be asymptomatic, which means that although they are contagious, they often feel healthy to go out, go to work, and cough while sticking to us. That way, it is worse than the flu and harder to control.
Kilbourne told me 30 years ago that he had created the MMMV for polishing reasons. "With viruses, where only a few changes can make a huge difference in the behavior of microbes, trying to predict the paths of evolution and development is almost impossible," he warned.
In places like mine, we may be tired of the threat of a global pandemic because we have seen so many "This is the Great" threat, something we have heard many times, but have been limited to regions we have felt as distant. With the exception of AIDS, severe epidemics have tended not to become global: SARS in 2003 remained predominantly in Asia, MERS in 2012 did not leave the Middle East, Ebola in 2014 was largely a curse to West Africa. As we continued to "avoid bullets," it was easy to attribute the infection elsewhere to behaviors that did not exist in our societies. Most of us did not travel with camels, did not eat monkeys, did not deal with live bats or cats in the markets.
This alienation of risk, in many ways, has been the big mistake that has brought us here. As I was rereading my book recently, I found a sentence that emphasizes our persistence in this shameful behavior: "Ask a field virologist what kind of epidemic is worth guarding against," I wrote, "and he will responds cynically: The death of a white man.
I turned the drawers of my files upside down to find a notebook, where I could have written the name of the field virologist, but in vain. But even without that information, I believe in the essence of that sentence. We have been playing for decades with the safety of our species. We are still doing it, nurturing an official and personal complacency that finally brought humanity to its knees.
What was it like to see the pandemic unfold, three decades after I wrote that a pandemic would unfold more or less this way? To be honest, it caused me a weird dizziness. It has also caused me an unfamiliar kind of solipsism, so much so that it makes me wonder: If I then had called harder for greater oversight and preparation, would we be here today?
However, there is something illuminating when reading the book’s stories on the epidemics of the last century, when new viruses continued to appear, wreaking havoc on populations, and then disappearing on their own. But never before, since the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, has there been a pandemic of this magnitude, and never with this mixture of transmissibility and mortality. We almost learned the right lessons in the 1990s, and then ignored them. Maybe this time, when the predictions have become a reality, those lessons will stick.
Robin Marantz Henig is a New York journalist and author of nine books. / Nationational Geographic - Bota.al