Epidemics are works in progress. At any given moment in time, you can’t know how they will end. They are a curve on a graph of ultimately unknown trajectory; when you are just a dot on a growing curve, you can’t see where line will go when it has yet to be drawn. Or to use another metaphor, as I remarked on my Cosmic Shambles blog back in late January when there was all to play for:
What we know right now about the Wuhan coronavirus is like a photo of a cluster of snooker balls a second after the break shot. We don’t know how fast the balls will roll away, nor to which corners of the table.
I wrote something here at the beginning of the Swine Flu pandemic back in 2009 which now makes interesting reading, encapsulating as it does that feeling of living through an outbreak’s beginning, of being a blind pixel on an unfolding graph:
Scientists, I think, are trained to be sceptical about major events in general, and the coverage of these events in the media in particular. Thus far the typical responses of my learned colleagues to the news of possible pandemic influenza have ranged from shrugs of disinterest to humorous quips, but very few feel that it will come to anything much. It is almost as if magnitude of the press response has reinforced their suspicion that nothing could possibly be as bad as advertised. So, are we witnessing another SARS fizzle-out, or the birth of a devastating plague that will be recorded in textbooks for millennia to come? I can almost see it inscribed: “In 2009, the first year of the Second Great Depression, the Swine Flu Epidemic wiped out a third of the earth’s population.”
While the 2009 pandemic infected up to 20% of the earth’s population and killed upwards of half a million people, it could have been worse. Knowing just how bad something is is a tricky thing, though. The piece I wrote for Shambles in January mentioned above references a tweet from a prominent medical expert telling everyone to calm down, that the evidence suggested the new coronavirus was only moderately contagious. Today, no one would dream of berating anyone from being concerned about what is unfolding before our eyes all over the world: escalating infection and death, supermarket shelves cleared by panic-buying, healthcare systems overwhelmed or predicted soon to be, countries on lockdown, borders closed and flights grounded. To me personally, this feels much more worrying than the Swine Flu pandemic, but at the very beginning, there was simply no way of knowing. And truth be told, Swine Flu might ultimately turn out to be more deadly.
I wrote in the Guardian in early February, before the seriousness of COVID19 was completely apparent, that the Big One was inevitable, but we wouldn’t know it until it was too late to repair our eroded and underfunded preparedness infrastructure. We can only hope now that we will overcome this challenge despite our flagrant lack of investment.
One of the reasons why I haven’t been writing much here over the past months is because I’ve been doing a lot of media work around COVID19 awareness. I have lost track of how many interviews I’ve given. I’ve appeared on television and radio (BBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, ITV, Sky), been filmed for documentaries (CNN, Discovery Channel), been quoted in print (New York Times, Guardian, London Times, Daily Mail), and turned down literally many hundreds of requests at all times of the day and night. My phone has been ringing off the hook and I’ve stopped answering it, allowing my university’s press office to filter them. (As I write this piece right now, an email from Good Morning Britain has pinged up on my screen, and I’ve got two missed called from Sky News.)
It was exhausting enough keeping up with the story when it was a small seedling; now that it’s a monstrous tree with miles of underground roots, I’m feeling as if it might be time to step away. My expertise was very useful in the beginning – a six-year virology PhD on viral evolution coupled with years of experience in drug discovery, and lots of practice honing my communications skills on undergraduates and the general public, allowing me to craft simple messages that might be of some use. On Friday the university’s Provost name-checked me in his weekly newsletter and thanked me for having helped out from the beginning. But I suspect now what we need more are the specialists able to provide the nuance, to chase those roots and branches to their very tips. So I’m going to be increasingly stepping away from this public role. A shortage of experts and the sheer demand might make this impossible, so if I’m needed, I will do my bit.
So is this the Big One? I very much hope not. But if one thing is certain, COV19 is the biggest thing we’ve coped with for a generation, and its ripples will be felt for years to come.