COVID-19: The rise of a very modern virus explained

BY Eliot Forster   /  21 March 2020

The situation today has eerie echoes of 18th Century Europe which was wracked with a Smallpox outbreak that killed between 10% and 20% of all those affected. Thankfully, the mortality rate of COVID-19 is substantially lower than that.

Back then families would isolate themselves to protect loved ones and avoid spreading the disease. A Dorset farmer, Benjamin Jesty, successfully employed a method of vaccination for cowpox – a disease which resembles a milder version of Smallpox – on his family, including two small children. This was a technique made famous and introduced into common practice by Edward Jenner through his “inquiry into the causes and effects of the variolae vaccinae” (or cowpox) in 1798.

Jesty, Jenner and others of that time worked alone to find their “cures”. Modern creators of vaccines are universities like Imperial College London, multinational companies such as Sanofi and GSK, and biotechs such as Moderna. The work we do at MedCity represents just one example of the incredible strength, breadth and depth in UK life sciences as a world-leading, interconnected hub for research, development, manufacturing and, through our links to the NHS, patient treatment.

Today, we know much more about how to make vaccines, how to tackle viruses such as COVID-19 with vaccines, and how epidemics spread across populations. In the end, COVID-19 will be controlled and defeated by new solutions, developed in modern laboratories by today’s equivalents of Edward Jenners.

But COVID-19 is a very modern disease. It has emerged as nations become wealthier through innovation and globalisation that has brought more than a billion people out of poverty in the second half of the last century.

The disease has emerged because wealthier populations want more space, encroaching on wildlife as never before. Wealthier populations want more exotic foods, holidays and lifestyles. Simply said, we have imposed on wild animals, their habitats and their diseases in ways we have never done before as a species. And we therefore have no immunity to these modern new diseases.

COVID-19 is easy to catch and for the old and vulnerable, deadly; a disease from an animal that humans are only encountering for the first time now. Other new diseases from animals have been even less “friendly”. HIV/AIDS is responsible for 32 million deaths, Ebola has a 50% death rate, MERS a 34% death rate, and coming soon?

Humans catch and carry these new diseases to every corner of the world, not in weeks and months, but in hours and days. One customer of a live animal market in Asia potentially infects the whole world in six months.

COVID19 is also a modern disease because we have cheap and accessible transport, carrying us and the infection to every continent, in less time than the symptoms take to emerge. We infect others even before we know we have the disease ourselves.

It is a modern disease because we have 24 hours news channels and instant unfiltered social media. We can watch the disease unfold as if it were a Hollywood horror movie, a problem of others viewed remotely through a screen.

It is a modern disease because a wave of fear is transmitted even quicker than the disease itself. A mild, infectious and collective panic is our first reaction; yet it’s all on a screen, so is it really real? Doubt, mistrust, falsehoods and scepticism pervade our electronic society. To whom do we turn. Where is the truth and who should we trust?

In the UK, we have one of the best public health systems in the world, but nothing could have prepared us for what we are facing today. If we are lucky, and the disease models are right, then the worst should be over in months, but like the ripples caused by a skimming stone across a pond, there might be later and smaller outbreaks.

The men on the front line, Professor Chris Witty and Sir Patrick Vallance, I know professionally and they are good men. Public spirited, smart, calm and experienced. We, like our strained political leaders, should turn to them, listen to them and trust them. They want the best for us in the face of this crisis.

We are a strong, independent and spirited nation and it’s time to gather these strengths, work for and with each other, face COVID-19 head on and do the simple things that will help us all keep calm.

Like the past, the future will bring vaccines. When it happens we must ignore the siren voices that will arise – like those of Andrew Wakefield, his anti-science acolytes and the anti-vax fringe. They are given a megaphone through our modern media and that echo chamber of social media madness. They must be ignored, shuttered and shouted down. Vaccines are the path beyond COVID-19.

We also need new practices in food and animal welfare, a ban on wildlife markets, and teeth for the World Health Organisation’s “One Health” programme, akin to empowering the medical versions of nuclear weapons inspectors.

Listen to those like Professor Andrew Cunningham at ZSL (The Zoological Society of London) and the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who have foreseen the disease risks of man’s global expansion. And maybe, possibly while in self-isolation, all of us can take the time to reflect on this fundamental question. Is how we have lived in fact how we want to live in a post COVID-19 world?

Professor Eliot Forster is Executive Chairman of MedCity. 


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