New evidence, and some recently unearthed old evidence, suggest that the pandemic of 2020 was truly inevitable. That’s because it was likely well underway before we said goodbye to 2019.
Researchers have discovered antibodies to the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19 in blood drawn last December from donors in California, Oregon and Washington, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal. As the abstract for the study puts it, “These findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may have been introduced into the United States prior to January 19, 2020.” The blood samples were drawn weeks before the first known case in America was diagnosed in a traveler who had recently arrived in Washington state from China. It was just about the same time that doctors in the Chinese city of Wuhan were realizing that they were seeing patients with a condition that bore striking similarities to earlier coronavirus-induced diseases including SARS and MERS.
Chinese officials initially suppressed news and scientific data about the virus. They delayed the public release of its newly sequenced genome for about a week, shortly after the first of the year. They denied that it spread readily from person to person, even as doctors were falling ill from contact with their patients.
I am not excusing or defending these choices. The Chinese Communist Party reflex to suppress and manage bad news clearly cost the rest of the world valuable time to prepare for the disease surge that was coming. China took advantage of that delay to secure its own supplies of protective equipment and other essentials; it has since become a key global provider of such materials. Confusion about the nature of the disease, including its ability to spread via asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers, may have deprived other countries of an opportunity to take preemptive steps that could have limited the early, deadly surges in places like northern Italy and New York City.
But the “China virus,” as President Donald Trump later angrily nicknamed it, could not have been contained to China. It arrived in the U.S. before even the Chinese knew what they were dealing with. And if it was here, it was elsewhere. It was going to find its way to office parties, weddings, cruise ships, concerts and sports stadiums. The pandemic was inevitable before the first fireworks exploded in New Zealand and other places on the western side of the international date line with dibs on New Year’s. And, as I like to say, the inevitable always happens.
Public health experts have warned for years that such a pandemic would occur sooner or later. In that less-actionable sense, too, it was inevitable. I can tell you right now that there will be hurricanes and tornadoes in 2025. We know they will occur – that’s the inevitable part – but we don’t know exactly when or where. Without those details, we can only take general preventive steps to mitigate the damage that will surely come to someone, someplace, that year.
We will learn lessons from this pandemic to reduce the future harm from the inevitable next one. There have been pandemics as long as there have been humans. They occur in other species too, although we don’t usually label them as such. Maybe we won’t waste as much time debating the use of masks or the utility of social distancing if the next pandemic has a similar pattern of respiratory transmission. Maybe we will have a greater appreciation of the costs of disrupted education and livelihoods, to weigh against the price in lives and sickness, allowing us to make more informed and nuanced judgments.
And maybe we will be able to deploy existing or new technologies to monitor the population to try to catch emerging diseases earlier. The tests for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies that detected its presence in small numbers of people from samples taken last December also suggest that, by this fall, the virus had spread to a far larger swath of the U.S. population than the number of confirmed cases has reflected. That number is approaching 14 million at this writing. A new modeling estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention puts the number closer to 53 million – a significant jump, even if still a minority of the overall population.
Some diseases make themselves known immediately and dramatically, with rapid onset, debilitating symptoms and high mortality rates. Ebola is one example. These are the diseases that often frighten us most, but they are also relatively easy to contain geographically.
SARS-CoV-2 was destined to spread worldwide almost from the moment it jumped the species barrier to the global traveler known as Homo sapiens. This is now clear. History will judge how well we responded to it, but it should not condemn us for the fact that it happened.