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Covid-19 explained: How it spreads and how to stay safe
07:18 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Joel Mokyr is the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Economics and History at Northwestern University. His most recent book is “A Culture of Growth,” published by Princeton University Press in 2016. He was awarded the biennial Heineken Prize by the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences for a lifetime achievement in historical science and the Balzan Prize for Economic History. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

Humans are at war with a foreign and hostile life-form. And no, this is not the “War of the Worlds” — it is a war we have been fighting since the beginning of history, and long before.

Human history can be described as an everlasting struggle between people and microscopic pathogens, as author and historian William McNeill taught us a generation ago. We are dealing with a deadly, stubborn, and protean set of enemies. Some are viruses, some are bacteria and some are parasites. Each one is different in how they make us sick and how we fight them.

Joel Mokyr

In 2020 the human race looks vulnerable: global supply chains and travel cause outbreaks in one location to spread worldwide in days, not decades as in the past. Our economy is a highly sophisticated machine that has a difficult time coping on short notice with disasters that few saw coming.

There is good reason to think that the economy will not fully bounce back until after we have developed an effective vaccine and then scaled up its production to the hundreds of millions of doses we need in the US and billions world-wide. That could take many months, perhaps even a few years. The economic cost is nothing short of mind-boggling, and the social consequences could be chilling.

And yet, as terrible as it may sound, given the awful death toll, from a longtime perspective, if Covid-19 had to hit us, maybe 2020 is the best time. At least we measure the duration of the devastation in months, not decades. In the past, we were not so lucky.

Bubonic Plague appeared in Europe in 1347, killed around a third of the population, and stuck around there for centuries, and in Asia even longer.

Infectious diseases wiped out much of the population of the American continent after Europeans showed up. Smallpox ravaged much of humanity for centuries before an effective vaccine was discovered in 1796.

Cholera terrorized many of the urban centers of the 19th century until its carrier was understood and vanquished, even if it still looks for (and at times finds) opportunities to raise its ugly head. Polio, the great fear of the 1930s and 1940s, took many years to be conquered by the genius of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Even HIV-AIDS is under control, though it took 15 years from the time it was first recognized until it started to fade slowly in 1996.

The war of people against malevolent pathogens is not over, and never will be. But this will surprise many readers: Covid-19 is a rear-guard action. In the 20th century, the percentage of people who died of infectious diseases declined to a tiny fraction of what it had been in 1900 (in the US, it plummeted from nearly 800 to about 60 per 100,000 by 1996, a decline of 92.5%)

A glance at mortality-by-cause data for the 20th century reveals two things. First, the longtime trend of death by infectious diseases is steeply down: The main causes of death in 1900 were all infectious diseases, whereas in 2019, non-infectious causes dominated and contagious diseases were relegated to the also-ran category. Second, infectious diseases did not disappear altogether, however, and made deadly if temporary comebacks in 1918 (Spanish flu) and the 1980s (HIV).

In the end, then, we will see Covid-19 join smallpox, measles, cholera, tuberculosis, and bubonic plague in the graveyard of defeated pathogens. Malaria is not quite there yet, but Bill and Melinda Gates are on the case. Not all of those diseases have quite been eliminated. But when they reappear, it’s usually because of humanity’s unforced errors.

The reason is totally obvious: Unlike our forefathers, we know who the enemies are. Think of infectious disease as a tenacious band of killers that never quite disappears but becomes dormant, only to pop up again and again, unexpectedly, in a different guise.

For example, Zika, Ebola and swine flu. They are organisms with no consciousness and no agency, programmed by evolution to multiply rapidly and spread if they can: mindless biology imposed on an integrated world. We cannot let our guards down as we are apt to do, because no two pandemics are alike. The way it works is that we throw things at them that work for a while, then we need to recalibrate. But thanks to modern science, we are getting better and better at this recalibration. So while the war is never-ending, there is little doubt that humans are winning; we have knowledge, they have evolution. Bet on knowledge.

The scientific response to Covid-19 has been lightning-fast. Within weeks scientists had sequenced its genome and are actively looking for vulnerabilities.

It is a matter of (historically) a short time until we find them. What is more, the Covid virus is serving as a “focusing device” — all of a sudden scientists of many stripes are concentrating on one topic.

History is full of examples in which society “recognizes” an urgent problem and sets its best minds upon solving it. As 18th century writer Dr. Samuel Johnson memorably said, “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” One thinks of the urgent need of eighteenth century sailors to determine longitude at sea, the pressing need that Germans had for nitrogen on the eve of World War I, or the concentrated efforts made in Project Manhattan.

The best and the brightest are putting their minds to combat Covid-19: to find cheap and reliable tests and in the end the holy grail, a vaccine. While politicians squabble and point fingers at one another, researchers collaborate, compare, and communicate.

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    Scientists are bringing to the battlefield a set of weapons that would have boggled the minds of Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur: they have advanced molecular virology and immunology, computational genomics, gene-editing technology, sophisticated epidemiological models, unprecedented tools to store and analyze huge data banks, and ultra-powerful microscopes to peek at extremely small things.

    Their arsenal is still far from perfect, as we are becoming painfully aware. But it is a lot better than what they had while fighting the deadly flu of 1918, which killed possibly 100 million people world-wide.The very identification of the influenza virus as the immediate cause of that epidemic did not occur until the 1930s. Human coronaviruses were identified in the mid-1960s.

    This is a difficult time for humanity on a global scale. Gloom is natural and inevitable. But we should bear in mind that the kind of economic world we have built, founded on knowledge and research, will aim the full power of its mighty artillery on this virus, and sooner rather than later, will zap it too. Until the next one comes around.