This Autumn, the movie ‘Contagion’ has been a huge hit in the United States. During September, it grossed almost three times that of any other feature. Clearly, people are worried about the rapid spread of a pandemic (the subject of the film) but is this just another production proving yet again that, if there’s one thing we love, it’s scaring ourselves to death?
Over the years I’ve been a scathing critic of the never-ending stream of disaster films. Some of them were very good, some half-baked hokum, but all of them have a deadening effect in the end: that’s to say, people spend three months obsessed with the thesis, and then, when it doesn’t happen within two years or so, tend to reject the whole idea as fanciful.
This makes life much easier for the curved ball…..the unexpected happens, takes off, and throws every projection on the planet out of the window.
Certainly, the pandemic threat is real enough. But the aftermath of HNV1 Avian Flu seemed to pour scorn on it: drug companies and even leading politicians across three continents were shown to have done very nicely thank you out of sales and profits….while other more serious diseases were neglected. However, whether any or all of the drugco/deliberate scare conspiracy theories are true or not, those people not making tons of dosh out of such things deserve an audience. Virus hunter Ian Lipkin (who was the technical consultant on Contagion) is one such person. He’s close to being the world’s leading virologist, and you wouldn’t want to have lunch with him: it might end in acute indigestion.
“We’re being asked to analyse 10,000 [virus] samples a year,” Dr. Lipkin says, “We’ve discovered at least 400 new viruses since I came to Columbia in 2002, and the process is accelerating.” That’s a lot of ways to die, but when you look behind Lipkin’s pronouncements, the facts do tend to support him. Globally, infectious diseases are a leading cause of death, accounting for a quarter to a third of the estimated 55-60 million deaths occurring anually.
At least 30 previously unknown disease agents have been identified since 1973, including HIV, Ebola, hepatitis C, and Nipah virus, for which no cures are available. But not all of the killers are new. They can mutate, alter their DNA, and then fox existing drugs completely. Twenty well-known diseases–including tuberculosis (TB), malaria, and cholera–have reemerged or spread geographically since 1973, usually in more virulent and drug-resistant forms.
Fadcinatingly, three factors seem to lie behind the mutation, innovation and acceleration in viral infections: the amount we travel, the growing interest of humans everywhere in more ‘exotic’ types of food, and inter-species ‘jumping’. Did you know, for instance, that the doubling of US food imports over the last five years (a staggering statistic in itself) is a key factor contributing to tens of millions of foodborne illnesses in America? It’s resulted in 95,000 deaths in the States over the last 30 years….a doubling of the trend.
Air travel and multinational business is a huge factor. In 1999 for example, doctors noticed a cluster of cases of encephalitis around New York City. They shipped blood from their patients to Dr. Lipkin, who was then at the University of California. Analysing the genetic material, he and his colleagues concluded that the encephalitis had been caused by West Nile virus. It was the first time the virus had been identified in the Western Hemisphere. Since Dr. Lipkin made the discovery, West Nile virus has spread across the continental United States.
Just this year, a new strain of Ebola virus was found in a bat in Spain — the first time this fatal virus has been carried beyond Black Africa; a new hepatitis virus has broken out in British dogs; and Lipkin’s team had, by the end of September, been working frantically to identify the DNA of 130 new viruses.
Better DNA knowledge has played a big part in the Lipkin centre’s success, but what worries researchers most is species-jumping. More than three-quarters of all emerging infectious diseases today originate when microbes jump from wildlife to humans. As suburban areas penetrate into formerly wild countryside, the incidence of contact between wild and domesticated animals has sky-rocketed. And in that real context, viruses are proving they will attack pretty much anything…or anyone. The danger, too, is that in the original animal host, many destructive diseases must nevertheless keep the host alive, or they will die. But when jumping is achieved, any restraint the virus needed is reduced: its goal becomes one of reproduction, rather than continuing survival. And at the end of that road is a rapid-expansion pandemic.
America’s National Intelligence Council produced an estimate recently of the gravity of the threat to US interests. It examined the most lethal diseases globally and by region, and developed alternative scenarios about their future course. Now of course, the NIC is a quasi-military branch of the Intelligence community in the States, so much of what’s in there tends to suggest (as you’d expect) that the threat is real and present and needs more Congressional dollars right now. Like so many such documents, it is an argument in search of a budget.
But here’s the intriguing thing: ironically, while the NIC study projects optimistic, median and pessimistic scenarios, it hasn’t covered the curved ball outlook. Forward planners very rarely do, for the simple reason that this is the scary bit no amount of money or expertise could fix, or predict.
A pandemic curved ball has already been created by globalism and leisure travel. A collapse of the global finance system, however, could easily become the catalyst for the batsman Homo sapiens missing the curved ball entirely.
Ian Lipkin already says that the US public health system “is underfinanced and overwhelmed”. My recent experiences with the NHS, and access to data about it, would suggest to me that the British system is in a similar condition. And we are making far more drastic cuts in the local ancillary services that plug into the NHS, providing early warnings about infection, than the Americans are.
“We can and must reduce the several months required to create and test a vaccine before beginning large-scale production and distribution,” Lipkin adds. But Government insolvency and the slow hand of bureaucracy will be standing in the way of that.
Medics around the world seem unable to agree on much, but one thing producing virtual unanimity is the acceptance that better coordination is needed between local, federal and international agencies when it comes to pandemics. Civil servants have never been any good at this: they’re usually too busy protecting their own turf to suggest anything more efficient…and public sector trade unions will of course oppose anything that means job losses.
Were I a simple propagandist, it would be very simple at this point to join up the dots running throughout the above piece, and highlight what the end result of amoral privilege always is: disaster.
That’s to say, link up media sensationalism, drugco hype, food crazes, globalism, urban sprawl, government overspending, vote-centric political spinelessness, greedy civil servants, braindead Trade Unions, and risk-mad bankers to reach a conclusion called ‘species self-destruction’. But it would be both stretching the elasticity of the argument, and melodramatic: the fact is that technology increases travel, travel produces new food experiences, and economic development produces population growth which, in turn, increases our exposure to ‘wild’ viruses.
The irony of this particular instance of curved ball potential is that, if it came to pass, it would for some time to come solve the problem that helped cause it: overpopulation.
I have seen all the smart projections, and read the assertive theories of population ‘experts’ suggesting that increased economic wealth acts as a brake on population growth, because it produces smaller families. I don’t buy it: it is simply another example of narrow extrapolation that fails to take into account variations from the average, and important elements within social anthropology.
An increasingly eroded culture in Britain, for example, has seen a major population spurt….accelerated by some immigrants whose large families are based on cultural and even religious traditions. These do not die out overnight. In China, the ‘one child’ Beijing policy has not only proved very hard to enforce, the slowdown in the last decade among wealthier Chinese has been hyped out of all proportion to its effect: 93% of Chinese have an income so small, they pay no tax at all. Their familial habits remain the same – central policy has curbed them, but we are talking well over a billion fecund people here. The same trends are pointed out in India…..and the same ‘tiny minority’ reality applies. Around the world, militant Islam is actively encouraging large families, as the best long-term attack on the infidel.
The very wealth-inequity model of capitalism that is now in the acendancy will, if we persist in ignoring its flaws, screw all the projections about reduced population growth, because it is only the classic 6-8% who really benefit from growth. Whether we like it or not, ignorant despair breeds children, and lots of them.
In short, a curved-ball pandemic is exactly what we need. And if it kills all of us, it may be exactly what the planet needs – I don’t know for sure: that’s an infinite and unwinnably mutual-trashing bunfight I don’t want to get into.
If you enjoyed this, you may also like Why Beijing found Sarkozy’s bonds hard-sell funny.