It’s everywhere on the news. You’ve probably heard or read about it. It’s the thing that’s been constantly on our minds for the past couple weeks, the invisible enemy that sequesters us indoors. Whether you’re referring to the virus itself (SARS-CoV-2) or the associated disease (COVID-19), the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has successfully managed to make its way into humanity’s history book. How this story will end or how many chapters there will be next – if any at all – remains unclear.
As the Western world is bracing for the peak, many are casting their sights beyond. Authorities are looking towards the future, trying to discern what the upcoming weeks, months or even years will look like. When all is said and done, what guarantee do we have that a bigger, more brutal pandemic isn’t looming on the horizons? After all, many tsunamis have so-called ‘herald waves’ that announce their fateful arrival. With precaution in mind, several scenarios detailing the resurgence of SARS-CoV-2 or the appearance of a new virus have gained momentum.
Scenario 1 | My Old Enemy
The first scenario is as simple as it gets. We manage to fight off the virus in the upcoming months. You hear sighs of relief all around the world and the governments are eager to restart their comatose economies – though some aren’t willing to wait until that point. Life resumes its ‘normal’ state, public restrictions are toned down, we can all be together again. Coronavirus was nothing but a bad dream – until it grasps us right back in its clutches.
In the absence of a vaccine, a viral pandemic doesn’t come to an end because it infects all the people at risk, but rather because it clashes with herd immunity. After a proportion of the population comes in contact with the virus and develops a degree of resistance, the virus will no longer have viable human hosts to invade. The rule of thumb is that a more contagious disease requires more immunised people to halt its advance. Antoine Flahault, head of Geneva University’s Institute of Global Health, places that number at around 50-66 per cent of the population, which must go through the infection and immunisation processes. In practice, that figure is hard to monitor. Once the situation is deemed safe and restrictions are relaxed, the viral spread starts again until it reaches that desired percentage of herd immunity. This is why pandemics tend to ‘take breaks’ rather than outrightly disappear.
There is also the possibility of viral resurgence from abroad. This is the case in many Asian countries. Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have to battle the disease again after its reintroduction from Europe or the United States. Whilst the authorities in these countries have employed extensive measures to track and manage the spread of the virus, entire countries cannot isolate themselves from the rest of the world – this is, in this context, one of the drawbacks of the globalised reality we live in. As communities become more interconnected and multi-layered, it becomes harder to successfully isolate at-risk individuals and prevent infection.
In this case, we might have a new seasonal flu on our hands, one which comes back year after year to poach us. It depends on multiple factors that enable viral transmissions, such as school terms, climate patterns and the enforcement of public health policies. Ultimately, it all boils down to how humans behave in certain environments. Whilst it is not much to work with, analysing and managing human interaction remains our most efficient way of curbing the spread of the coronavirus. The ultimate game-changer, according to Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the United States, will be the introduction of a vaccine. These, however, take time to test, and even with accelerated procedures, it is unlikely that manufacturers will be able to mass-produce a vaccine before the second half of 2021. Even then, we might be confronted with the same public health and ethical concerns that anti-vaxxer groups have debated over recent years.
Scenario 2 | The Animal Kingdom
The second scenario tells the story of a slightly different, yet more expansive threat. A story of not one virus, but of many more. Viruses are strands of DNA or RNA that form parasitic relationships with specific host species. When these relationships are stable and long-term, they do not exhibit syndromes of disease and the host is generally safe. When the virus decides to pack its bags and jump onto a different host, things start to complicate and the probability of disease increases.
In all their anatomical simplicity, viruses have a rather elegant mechanism. Within themselves, they have encoded the right information that details out how to live and multiply in a specific host. However, sometimes there are errors in the multiplication process, and the instructions embedded in the virus can be altered. So instead of a plan to live in their original host, they receive a mutated one, which is more suitable to living in a different host. When the two aforementioned hosts come in contact, the jump of the altered virus becomes possible.
SARS-CoV-2 is widely believed to have originated from a species of bats from China. From that species, the virus possibly jumped to one or more intermediary species, ultimately making contact with humans. There are other factors that could have fueled the process, such as the high recombination rates specific to coronaviruses, which increases the probability of mutations, as well as facilitated inter-species contact, which could have taken place in one of the many wildlife markets in the region.
Currently, virologists are working to determine what the next reservoirs of coronaviruses might be, with a list of suspects including different types of dogs, chickens, cattle, pigs, cats, pangolins, and bats. Researchers are interested in any animal that the coronavirus could infect, regardless of their potential to trigger diseases. As a carrier, they could still pose a risk to the humans they get in contact with. Whilst determining specific viral jumps from one species to another is next to impossible, detecting the main culprits carrying a large array of coronavirus strains could help us prevent the next big epidemic.
Lessons for Tomorrow
All things considered, our species has always been threatened by pathogens. Whilst we have fortunately endured their assault so far, the current emergence of SARS-CoV-2 is a testament to humanity’s somewhat unbridled expansion in all areas of nature. We occupy more and more parts of our planet, for habitation, farming and other purposes, thus increasing the frequency of contacts with other species. Among these many contacts, one is sufficient to trigger a global crisis. The catastrophe, however, has also been fueled by the world’s complacency when it comes to public health. Medical infrastructure is unevenly distributed and often in shambles, and public health policies are lagging in most countries. We might very well overcome this health crisis, but we, as humans, need to have a serious conversation about our place on this planet and the extent – and price – of our progress.