In Aesop’s fable about the boy who cried “Wolf!”, the point of the tale is that eventually there was a wolf, but the boy was not believed because he had given too many false alarms. In my view, the COVID-19 coronavirus is indeed a wolf, or at least has the potential to be one. Many people, including President Trump, think we are over-reacting, because so many past scares have been exaggerated. I think that’s wrong.
Coming from you, a friend said to me the other day, that’s scary. I am known as an obsessive and serial debunker of false alarms. I have been at it for almost 40 years ever since I realised as a science journalist in the 1980s that acid rain was being wildly overblown as a threat to forests (I was right). This scepticism has served me well. I did not believe that mad cow disease would kill hundreds of thousands of people, as some “experts” were claiming in the mid 1990s. In the end just 177 died. Likewise, I refused to panic over bird flu, swine flu, SARS or ebola.
I set out to debunk exaggerated claims about the population explosion, peak oil and peak gas, nuclear winter, the ozone hole, pesticides, species extinction rates, genetically modified crops, sperm counts, ocean acidification and the millennium bug. In every case this made me unpopular and unfashionable, but close to the truth. I said climate change would happen more slowly and with less impact on storms, floods, droughts, sea ice and sea level than even some experts were claiming in the 1990s, let alone the extreme environmentalists, and it has.
It is very easy, in other words, to bet on the tendency of journalists and their readers to engage in a competitive auction of unjustified alarm. “The whole aim of practical politics,” said H.L. Mencken, “is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” And no, the fact that the millennium bug was a damp squib was not because we were well prepared; some countries and industries did nothing and were still fine.
So why don’t I think this hobgoblin is imaginary? First, because lethal plagues have a long track record. From the plague of Justinian to the Black Death to the Spanish flu of 1918 to the HIV epidemic, new diseases have proved they can burn through the human population with frightening efficiency. It’s true we have got better at eradicating infectious diseases through vaccinations, pills and public health, but most viruses are still very hard to cure and some are very easy to catch.
The second reason is that new diseases are often more dangerous than existing ones and this one has jumped from bats, possibly via pangolins. In the past respiratory viruses have generally proved to be low in virulence once they become highly contagious: hence the large number of rhinovirus, adenovirus and coronavirus strains that we call collectively, “the common cold”. Even flu has been relatively less lethal since the special wartime conditions of 1918. But when they first infect our species, viruses can encounter a vulnerable immune system and run riot.
The third reason for alarm in this case is the speed with which COVID-19 has crossed regional and international boundaries. It does seem to have acquired an unusual skill at getting passed on from one person to another, usually not making them so sick that they stay away from meeting other people, which is what prevents ebola causing pandemics, but yet being capable of killing about 1% of people it infects. This is the frightening combination of traits that we have feared might one day arise.
Then there is the effect of globalisation, and the huge growth in international travel. I wrote in my notes in 1996, when reviewing a book on new viruses, “If we persist in creating conditions in which viruses can be easily transmitted and amplified, then we will persist in experiencing waves of new viral epidemics. The problem lies in the ecology of our society, not destruction of the environment.” Human beings are just too tempting an ecosystem for an ambitious virus.
But we have indeed cried wolf over so many issues, that it has contributed to us being underprepared. We should have seen that globalisation would cause such a risk to grow ever larger and taken action to prevent a new virus appearing. We should have worried about things other than climate change. Here are a few of the measures we could and should have taken in recent years instead of going into hysteria about the gradual warming of the temperature mainly at night, in winter and in the north.
We could have pursued an international agreement to ban the sale of live bats in markets. Bats are especially dangerous because they are fellow mammals and share with us a tendency to live in huge aggregations. We could have funded more research and development in antiviral therapies, vaccines and diagnostics. We could have built a better infrastructure to isolate cases in healthcare systems, and at transport hubs. These might have been expensive, yes – but nothing like the money we are spending on precautionary measures against dangerous climate change which is still decades away.
There are already several different strains of the virus, one of which, the L strain, looks to be more lethal than others. I fully expect that the milder strains will eventually prevail and this virus will settle down as a form of seasonal fever. But before it does so, in this first pandemic, it is now likely, though not inevitable, that it will kill hundreds of thousands of people.
Donald Trump takes comfort from the fact that it has killed only a handful of Americans so far. He forgets that the chart of an epidemic is exponential, as each person infects several people, and the power of such compound interest is, as Albert Einstein supposedly said, the eighth wonder of the world. The economist Tyler Cowen points out that it’s hard to beat an exponential process once a certain point has passed.
Last week Greta Thunberg was still telling the European Parliament that climate change is the greatest threat humanity faces. This week Extinction Rebellion’s upper-class twits were baring their breasts on Waterloo bridge in protest at the billions of people who they wrongly think may die from global warming in the next decade. These people are demonstrating their insensitivity. They are spooked by a spaniel when there’s a wolf on the loose.