More Progress, Faster, Is Our Best Defense Against This Pandemic and Future Ones

A historical perspective offers insights about how far we have come since the 1918 Spanish flu, and how far we have yet to go.

(© Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA/CDC India)


With a deadly pandemic sweeping the planet, many are questioning the comfort and security we have taken for granted in the modern world.

A century ago, when an influenza pandemic struck, we barely knew what viruses were.

More than a century after the germ theory, we are still at the mercy of a microbe we can neither treat, nor control, nor immunize against. Even more discouraging is that technology has in some ways exacerbated the problem: cars and air travel allow a new disease to quickly encompass the globe.

Some say we have grown complacent, that we falsely assume the triumphs of the past ensure a happy and prosperous future, that we are oblivious to the possibility of unpredictable "black swan" events that could cause our destruction. Some have begun to lose confidence in progress itself, and despair of the future.

But the new coronavirus should not defeat our spirit—if anything, it should spur us to redouble our efforts, both in the science and technology of medicine, and more broadly in the advance of industry. Because the best way to protect ourselves against future disasters is more progress, faster.

Science and technology have overall made us much better able to deal with disease. In the developed world, we have already tamed most categories of infectious disease. Most bacterial infections, such as tuberculosis or bacterial pneumonia, are cured with antibiotics. Waterborne diseases such as cholera are eliminated through sanitation; insect-borne ones such as malaria through pest control. Those that are not contagious until symptoms appear, such as SARS, can be handled through case isolation and contact tracing. For the rest, such as smallpox, polio, and measles, we develop vaccines, given enough time. COVID-19 could start a pandemic only because it fits a narrow category: a new, viral disease that is highly contagious via pre-symptomatic droplet/aerosol transmission, and that has a high mortality rate compared to seasonal influenza.

A century ago, when an influenza pandemic struck, we barely knew what viruses were; no one had ever seen one. Today we know what COVID-19 is down to its exact genome; in fact, we have sequenced thousands of COVID-19 genomes, and can track its history and its spread through their mutations. We can create vaccines faster today, too: where we once developed them in live animals, we now use cell cultures; where we once had to weaken or inactivate the virus itself, we can now produce vaccines based on the virus's proteins. And even though we don't yet have a treatment, the last century-plus of pharmaceutical research has given us a vast catalog of candidate drugs, already proven safe. Even now, over 50 candidate vaccines and almost 100 candidate treatments are in the research pipeline.

It's not just our knowledge that has advanced, but our methods. When smallpox raged in the 1700s, even the idea of calculating a case-fatality rate was an innovation. When the polio vaccine was trialled in the 1950s, the use of placebo-controlled trials was still controversial. The crucial measure of contagiousness, "R0", was not developed in epidemiology until the 1980s. And today, all of these methods are made orders of magnitude faster and more powerful by statistical and data visualization software.

If you're seeking to avoid COVID-19, the hand sanitizer gel you carry in a pocket or purse did not exist until the 1960s. If you start to show symptoms, the pulse oximeter that tests your blood oxygenation was not developed until the 1970s. If your case worsens, the mechanical ventilator that keeps you alive was invented in the 1950s—in fact, no form of artificial respiration was widely available until the "iron lung" used to treat polio patients in the 1930s. Even the modern emergency medical system did not exist until recently: if during the 1918 flu pandemic you became seriously ill, there was no 911 hotline to call, and any ambulance that showed up would likely have been a modified van or hearse, with no equipment or trained staff.

As many of us "shelter in place", we are far more able to communicate and collaborate, to maintain some semblance of normal life, than we ever would have been. To compare again to 1918: long-distance telephone service barely existed at that time, and only about a third of homes in the US even had electricity; now we can videoconference over Zoom and Skype. And the enormous selection and availability provided by online retail and food delivery have kept us stocked and fed, even when we don't want to venture out to the store.

Let the virus push us to redouble our efforts to make scientific, technological, and industrial progress on all fronts.

"Black swan" calamities can strike without warning at any time. Indeed, humanity has always been subject to them—drought and frost, fire and flood, war and plague. But we are better equipped now to deal with them than ever before. And the more progress we make, the better prepared we'll be for the next one. The accumulation of knowledge, technology, industrial infrastructure, and surplus wealth is the best buffer against any shock—whether a viral pandemic, a nuclear war, or an asteroid impact. In fact, the more worried we are about future crises, the more energetically we should accelerate science, technology and industry.

In this sense, we have grown complacent. We take the modern world for granted, so much so that some question whether further progress is even still needed. The new virus proves how much we do need it, and how far we still have to go. Imagine how different things would be if we had broad-spectrum antiviral drugs, or a way to enhance the immune system to react faster to infection, or a way to detect infection even before symptoms appear. These technologies may seem to belong to a Star Trek future—but so, at one time, did cell phones.

The virus reminds us that nature is indifferent to us, leaving us to fend entirely for ourselves. As we go to war against it, let us not take the need for such a war as reason for despair. Instead, let it push us to redouble our efforts to make scientific, technological, and industrial progress on all fronts. No matter the odds, applied intelligence is our best weapon against disaster.

Jason Crawford
Jason Crawford is the author of The Roots of Progress (https://rootsofprogress.org), where he writes about the history of technology and industry. Previously, he spent 18 years as a software engineer, engineering manager, and startup founder.
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On left, people excitedly line up for Salk's polio vaccine in 1957; on right, Joe Biden gets one of the COVID vaccines on December 21, 2020.

Wikimedia Commons and Biden's Twitter

On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.

The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.

Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.

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Biochemist Longxing Cao is working with colleagues at the University of Washington on promising research to disable infectious coronavirus in a person's nose.

UW

Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.

Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.

This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.