Fundamentally, a pandemic is a crippling economic problem whose only solution is a medical breakthrough: a vaccine or an effective anti-viral drug. The unthinkable death toll of doing nothing forces us to sacrifice economic growth through social distancing and quarantine until that treatment can be found through scientific research.
COVID-19 is no joke. The virus seems custom made to mess up our modern world. It has a fairly high mortality rate, yet incubates without symptoms for about five days, during which time it may already be infectious1. Many infections result in a mild flu-like illness, despite the person being quite infectious. It likely spreads through the air when people cough, and from person-to-person via contact with surfaces2. If we do nothing, our hospital system will be overwhelmed many times over and millions of people will die3. If you follow the exponential growth curves while worrying whether there will be enough toilet paper at the grocery store, it’s enough to make your head explode.
So why am I optimistic? Fundamentally, I am optimistic because I know that humanity is adaptive. And as much as COVID-19 has been a black swan event of epic proportions, the response from humanity has produced a similarly epic set of white swans. Consider that, just one week ago, most people outside of China and Italy were still carrying on as usual: Going to work, eating at restaurants, visiting with friends and family. Today, in most of the free world, people are working from home. School has been canceled. Restaurants are closed. Governments have promised trillions in aid. And not a single shot has been fired.
But there’s more. In labs and hospitals around the world, scientists have been working tirelessly to understand the virus that causes COVID-19, generating research papers at a furious pace. DARPA’s Pandemic Preparedness Program (P3) has funded several companies that are racing to produce a so-called “firebreak” treatment for the virus. China and now many other countries are running larger trials of existing and novel anti-viral medicines. Early results are promising, such as the effects of a common anti-malarial medicine called chloroquinone. There are vaccines entering human trials, even though an eventual vaccine will take many months to produce in sufficient quantities to treat everyone. All this for a virus that emerged in China in late December.
The pace of change is astonishing. And that’s precisely why I am optimistic about COVID-19. We do not have a society that gives up on things. We live in an amazing time when the challenge of a new virus generates an “immune response” from humanity itself, uniting us in what I’m sure will be seen as the greatest mobilization of human effort in history. While the coming weeks will bring many newsworthy surprises, including reports of overwhelmed hospitals, I hope that you can tune out the negative news and focus on the science, where real progress is being made day by day.
1See Epidemiology and Transmission of COVID-19 in Shenzhen China: Analysis of 391 cases and 1,286 of their close contacts
2See Aerosol and surface stability of HCoV-19 (SARS-CoV-2) compared to SARS-CoV-1
3See Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID19 mortality and healthcare demand