UW pandemic expert explains our obsession with COVID-19

The coronavirus reminds us that disease outbreaks anywhere in the world are really in our own backyard.

Airport travelers with masks

Meredith Ponder, left, and Coleby Hanisch, both of Des Moines, Iowa, wear masks to remind them not to touch their faces as they ride a train at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, March 2, 2020. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

A viral illness spreads across Washington state, causing respiratory illness. Most cases are mild, but some are severe and even fatal. At the same time it causes many fewer illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths than the seasonal flu. So why are we obsessed with this COVID-19? Why is it that pharmacies have run out of surgical masks and hand sanitizer, and people no longer feel shy about wearing a mask in public? Why are conferences and classes getting canceled and governors declaring states of emergency when we don’t do that with seasonal flu?

For starters, the SARS2 coronavirus is a new human virus, related in many ways to the scary coronaviruses that cause Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). We have known of this virus only for a couple of months, so there is a degree of uncertainty that can easily lead to fear, as well as obsession. And what we do know — one, that the virus appears to more fatal than the average flu virus (though this is complicated), sometimes rapidly, and two, that it is probably more transmissible — is enough to make us take this new threat very seriously, even though influenza still dwarfs it in number of cases and deaths. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that up to 49 million infections and 52,000 deaths between October 2019 and February 2020.) And, unlike the flu, we have no vaccine or treatments for COVID-19 on the immediate horizon, and no natural immunity from past infection.

Second, compared with any other pandemic threat in history, we are able to track the spread of this virus in real time. The World Health Organization, CDC and others produce daily case counts, and we can check on our phones how the virus is progressing around the world. Almost every day produces some event deemed newsworthy — an outbreak here, a cruise ship there, the impact on the economy locally and globally. By contrast, when the 2009 pandemic strain of H1N1 influenza spread around the world, our data systems soon gave up trying to capture all of the cases. COVID-19 is a good fit for our endless appetite for real time news.

Third, compared with SARS, which broke out in China in 2003, we are even more interdependent with China and its economy. At that time, China was only about 4% of global GDP, and travel between China and the West was limited. All of this has changed in the recent decade, and China now accounts for almost 20% of global GDP. China’s aggressive Belt and Road program has sent both capital and large numbers of Chinese workers to multiple countries. China is a large part of global tourism. The country’s global reach is one reason the virus has spread to so many other countries so quickly.

As we adjust to the reality that COVID-19 is circulating in U.S. communities, exposing and infecting many people who have not traveled to any other country, we need to take the threat to public health seriously and take all possible steps to limit the spread and impact of the virus. In the future we should take many of the same steps each year to combat the flu.

We still don’t know what happened to start the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, but the infected market workers and the discovery of the virus in environmental samples from the Wuhan markets makes it likely that some animal raised or marketed for food was the vehicle infecting humans.

We need to devote some of our obsession to this issue as well, even though the virus is now spreading person to person. If food animals were involved in infecting humans, we need to find out for sure, and know which animals and why. We need to understand and address the global deforestation and other habitat destruction that puts us in closer contact with wildlife species such as bats. We need to confront the loss of biodiversity that increases the risk of pathogens jumping from wildlife species to domestic animals or humans.

Above all, our obsession may come down to this: COVID-19 reminds us that disease outbreaks anywhere in the world are really in our own backyard.

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