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Covid-19, the next century

Thinking that Covid-19 is one of the first of many pandemics of the 21st century. The past 75 years were not normal; they were the exception.

  • In 1945, we had just discovered antibiotics, but now resistance is emerging — and not much is done about it, because the system values short-term (agricultural) profit more than long-term, hypothetical (health) losses.
  • We were also still relatively protected by distances, so most epidemics remained local; now (or at least, up until last month), anyone can travel to the other end of the globe in less than 24 hours.
  • We were also a lot fewer, thus giving pathogens that many fewer chances to mutate.

An organism’s success is measured by its ability to reproduce and colonise all the resources at its disposal. For a virus like covid-19, we are the resources. It is not pure luck that this virus is hurting us so much: through its long spread among various hosts (some scientists now say it may have been around for a decade or more, under a less lethal form), it has mutated until it found an almost perfect combination of characteristics:

  • in-born resistance to antibiotics (normal for a virus);
  • high contagiousness (each case contaminates at least 2.5 other people, and this estimate might be revised up);
  • relatively high number (some say 25%) of asymptomatic carriers, who can still spread it;
  • relatively low lethality, which makes people less likely to take precautions.

These characteristics are perfect for a virus to thrive in a globalised, barrier-free world. By this, I’m not saying someone designed it; I’m just saying that our globalised world had created a huge biological niche (7 billion people) that something, at some point, was going to try to exploit. SARS, MERS, H5N1 (all viruses, all antibiotic-resistant — not a coincidence): we were lucky that these epidemics didn’t spread more than they did. Lucky, because they didn’t (randomly) evolve the ‘perfect’ set of characteristics to contaminate the world. But eventually, one pathogen was going to find this set (probably starting with high contagiousness: the more carriers, the more chances to mutate) — and here we are.

We’ll make it though this pandemic: in Asia and Europe, we’re already starting to see light at the end of the tunnel. But we’d better prepare: there will be more.

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