More than a 100 years ago, an unprecedented and deadly pandemic swept the globe for a full year, infecting one-third of the world’s population and killing 50 million people. Often referred to as the Spanish flu, the 1918 influenza pandemic was caused by an H1N1 virus that originated from birds. With no vaccines or treatments available to tackle this scourge, the only way to stem the tide was to quarantine patients, isolate communities, use personal hygiene, disinfect facilities, and limit public gatherings. Today, as we face COVID-19 and practice social distancing and frequent hand-washing, we once again confront nature’s fury, seemingly caught unprepared for the onslaught of an enemy we can’t even see with our naked eyes. How will we cope?
I remain optimistic that we will not only cope but will prevail over the SARS-COV-2 virus. Why? Because today we have access to state-of-the-art tools and technologies to tackle COVID-19 disease. We have come a long way since 1918, making progress on multiple fronts, including in science and medicine, such as vaccines, diagnostics, treatments, in information technology, and in health information awareness, education, and public engagement. In 1918, we didn’t understand how viruses caused human diseases. We also lacked both the vaccines to prevent viral infections and the antivirals to treat them, and we had yet to discover antibiotics needed for follow-on bacterial infections like pneumonia. We didn’t have microscopes powerful enough to see viruses, nor did we know that all living organisms, including viruses, had genetic material.
Today, we face a totally novel virus, and, at this moment, we lack vaccines and antivirals to treat COVID-19 disease, but thanks to human innovations, we have the tools to tackle this crisis. We know our enemy—SARS-COV-2—and we have sequenced its genome, its genetic blueprint, published within just a few weeks after the virus first attacked China. The virus’ genetic information is available to scientists all over the world who are racing to find vaccines and potential treatments. We have state of the art vaccine platforms, genetic engineering methods, and interference technologies at our disposal to understand and blunt this virus. We have manufacturing capacity to make treatments or vaccines at scale to meet the needs of this world. It will take time, but we will get there.
Why do I believe this? Because we have faced many other scourges since 1918: Ebola, Zika, SARS, MeRs, and HIV. In all instances, science has prevailed to make these diseases more manageable. Take the story of HIV/AIDS, for instance. When a mystery illness first got into public awareness in the 1980s, fear in the community was rampant. As Robin Henig reported in The New York Timesin 1983, the research community was stymied in finding the cause of “the century’s most virulent epidemic.” Scientists and researchers in academic, hospital, and government labs knew little or nothing about the deadly disease. Dr. Abe M. Macher, an infectious disease specialist at the National Institutes of Health, says in Henig’s article, “When people discuss this syndrome at scientific meetings, it sounds like something out of ‘The Andromeda Strain.’”
Today, more than 36 years later, we know this disease as AIDS and its cause is the virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). We also know how the infection is acquired and have designed treatments to control the disease. We have come a long way thanks to advances in science and medicine, and to community-led activism. But it wasn’t easy. The story of HIV/AIDS is filled with countless chronicles of trials and tribulations, failures and successes, personal sacrifices, and ultimately the triumph of human spirit. Its heroes are the global community of scientists, doctors, patients, public health officials, activists and patients who work together to fight an unprecedented enemy.
As we work together as a world to tackle COVID-19 disease, let’s remember that we will can face fear, anxiety and loneliness, and will celebrate progress as we work together as a global community. It will take remarkable sacrifice, unexpected heroics, and extraordinary collaboration. But ultimately, science and the human spirit will triumph over SARS-COV-2!
Also read about Dr. Pooja Patel and her work on the frontlines of the pandemic.