Study of new diseases needed

How long did it take modern humans to evolve from our primitive ancestors? Well, Neanderthals roamed the earth about 40,000 years ago. Let’s say it required 2,000 generations for creatures like us to evolve to what we are today. Compared to Neanderthals, we are much more capable physically and intellectually — and much more dangerous.

At least one virus that can harm people replicates — with the potential for mutation — every 1.2 days. Some replicate in 13 minutes. In other words, 2,000 generations in about three weeks. There are about 320,000 viruses capable of infecting mammals, by the way.

Well, how quickly can a benign virus, unable to even penetrate human cells, develop that ability? As little as two weeks, researchers have learned.

Now you understand why I’ve been the little newspaper editor who cried wolf for oh, around 20 years.

As bad as it is, COVID-19 does not mean the wolf has arrived at our door. One day, however, a much bigger, badder wolf will show up.

Unless we begin paying more attention to the threat — and that means devoting serious resources to research — that wolf will be something like the Spanish flu of 1918 (worldwide death toll, about 50 million) or the Black Death of the 14th century (as many as 200 million dead — 30-60% of the people in Europe).

Understand that the mutation information above is highly simplified. Different viruses behave in different ways. Mutation doesn’t necessarily mean evolution into something dangerous, though clearly, that does happen. COVID-19 is new, after all — or at least new to human beings.

We discover new species of flora and fauna regularly. We don’t know what kinds of toxins they may be carrying. We do have some experience with what happens when a population with no resistance to a virus or bacteria is exposed. No one knows how many Native Americans died when Europeans brought smallpox to the New World, but we do know the disease devastated them. Entire tribes were wiped out.

And we have experience with “new” diseases that may have existed for millennia in animals, while they developed resistance, but then make the jump to humans. Ebola is one of them. It was “discovered” in 1976 in the Congo, near the Ebola River. Ebola’s fatality rate makes COVID-19 sound like a picnic.

But here’s the thing: We spend relatively little learning about emerging diseases and preparing for them. We prefer to direct our defense dollars to building tanks, ships and planes to fight the Russians or the Chinese.

As an editorial we carried this week pointed out, there would have been no shortage of N-95 protective masks for health care workers had we stockpiled 20 million or so of them at a cost of less than one F-35 warplane.

And how much have we spent– both through government and out of our own pocketbooks because of federal mandates — on climate change? Again, that’s simplistic; it’s possible warmer temperatures may mean more outbreaks of some diseases. Still, climate change isn’t going to kill 50 million of us in a year.

Somewhere out there is an emerging disease with the power to do that — or worse.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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