The coronavirus that’s afflicting China and in danger of spreading is frightening. Armed soldiers, dressed in biological uniforms and face masks, sealing off entire cities is reminiscent of reading an Arthur C Clarke novel or watching a sci-fi movie. But it’s real life and, despite some apparent heavy-handedness and concern about general lack of democracy in the country, truth be told much is probably necessary. Indeed, the construction of a hospital in six days is quite inspiring, confirming that necessity’s the mother of invention.
For I recall being privy to Cabinet briefings a decade ago, at the time of the last outbreak of avian flu. That caused understandable concern at the time with attempts to inoculate the vulnerable and other public health steps invoked. It passed by relatively benignly, but I always recall that the clear message from public health officials was that it’s not if, but when, we’ll face a global pandemic. I don’t want to sound like a harbinger of doom but forewarned is forearmed.
The dangers posed by an avian or animal virus being transferred to humans for which we have no existing treatment available are all too real. Despite the threat of terrorism with which we now live, this probably poses a far greater danger than any or even all attacks could ever pose. Moreover, despite President Trump’s bellicosity in rhetoric and rashness in action, it’s still a greater threat to humanity than nuclear war.
A race against time
Hopefully, the somewhat draconian response of the Chinese and the quick reactions of public health officials there and elsewhere will address it. No doubt at this very moment research scientists will be at work around the globe seeking a vaccination for it.
That’s because the critical aspect of these pandemics is that there’s no stock of medicines able to be rolled out to immediately treat it. Paracetamol won’t suffice and until we know what we’re dealing with, we can’t prepare a vaccination and there’s none available on the shelf. The complexity of its transmission from another species, together with the growing immunity of some strains to existing treatments compounds the difficulty for micro-biologists.
Basically, we have to await the arrival of a new disease and it’s then a race against time to develop a treatment. Equally though, and as we’ve seen with coronavirus, the interdependent and globalised world in which we live now means that any virus can be spread to all corners of the globe literally within days.
It’s why governments prepare as best they can. As well as the briefings, I recall taking part in scenario planning for such an eventuality. Authorities do ready themselves as best they can although not every situation can be foreseen. Some are common sense, as in China, schools will close, football matches and other public gatherings will be cancelled; all to restrict the spread of the disease.
Mobile mortuaries, food helicoptered in
Some issues are more complex. What happens if ill health means crew levels fall below muster for ferry services to the islands? The answer is that planes and helicopters will require to be used to address the difficulties of a “just in time society” and the lack of food on supermarket shelves. Others are even quite macabre – where do you store bodies if the death toll mounts and mortuaries are at capacity?
The solution is mobile and temporary ones. It’s not just the most recent threats but older history that tells us to prepare. For the world suffered a devastating flu pandemic in 1919. More died from it than in the Great War that was just ending. Quite incredible to think that despite the carnage caused by man, it was a disease that was the more deadly Grim Reaper. But there are few memorials to remind us and it’s faded from memory.
Yet, it’s reckoned that 500 million were infected with anywhere between 50 and 100 million dying. In Scotland, it was similar and, as in war, the young suffered disproportionately, not having the antibodies that older people had managed to acquire over their lives. It’s been called Spanish flu yet that’s a misnomer. It may have come from the USA with American soldiers landing to fight in the war, having first broken out in the Midwest. However, war-time censorship still applied even after armistice day. Coverage was restricted until news was carried of an outbreak in Spain, even though it was already abroad across all of Britain and with deadly effect. But the story was carried, and the name stuck.
So, it’s for good reason that public health officials are fearful and governments are mindful. Hopefully, this virus will be contained but flu, though not as we know it, remains a threat.
Kenny MacAskill is the SNP MP for East Lothian