Thursday, May 28, 2020

Gina Kolata, Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus that Caused It (Simon & Schuster, 2005)

As we sit in our homes in isolation in an attempt to “flatten the curve,” it’s helpful to remember that this is not the human race’s first rodeo.

A little over a century ago, in the midst of the world’s first experience of total war, a virulent virus raged through every corner of the globe, killing an estimated 100 million people. Most families were touched by the pandemic. My grandfather was spared from service in World War I because the second draft in which he would have been called up was canceled as a result of the pandemic. A strong and healthy young man, he later nearly died from the virus; his aunt suddenly came down with the influenza and was gone within a few days, leaving behind a bereaved husband and several young children.

Such experiences were commonplace, as Gina Kolata, a science journalist for the New York Times, recounts in this book. But this is more than just the story of the 1918 pandemic. Until relatively recently, scientists had no clue about the genetic makeup of the 1918 virus or what made it so dangerous. The search for the answers to these questions about the Spanish Flu, eerily similar to the frenetic search for knowledge about COVID-19 currently underway, makes up the heart of Kolata’s story.

Surprisingly, this is something of an entrepreneurial story.  It features a handful of driven scientists, working on a budget of a few thousand dollars, who found the answers before others with bigger reputations and budgets. Thanks to these men and women, the 1918 virus has been replicated, and we now know that it is no longer a threat to us. Laboratory testing verifies that the 1918 virus would be “completely stopped by today’s flu drugs.” As it happened, the 1918 flu died out because most people alive in 1918 contracted the flu, leading to herd immunity.

How is the coronavirus different? For one thing, the 1918 virus attacked those who were young and healthy. Older people, because of exposure to similar but less lethal viruses earlier in their lives, had a partial immunity to its deadliest effects. Just the opposite is true of COVID-19, which especially threatens the elderly. This is where the “novel” in “novel coronavirus” comes in — this virus is nothing like other viruses that the human race has experienced before. Older people don’t have the advantage of having built up antibodies, and younger people have the advantage of stronger immune systems.

Let’s hope for speedy success among the multitudes of entrepreneurial young scientists and others working on this right now.

No comments :

Post a Comment