Passengers wait in a long line to get a COVID-19 test to travel overseas at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Friday, August 6, 6, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)
Where exactly do we stand with the pandemic right now?
A few months ago, when vaccination rates were accelerating, and COVID-19 cases were plummeting, it seemed we were out of the woods. With restrictions, offices, colleges, universities, sports leagues, resorts, and concert halls were planning to fully reopen. Still, net-net, it looked like the pandemic was winding down, and we’d have a pretty standard fall.
Not so fast.
Nowhere is vaccinations plateau, the Delta variant rears its ugly head, and breakthrough cases come to the fore. The reopening process has stalled or has been thrown in reverse. Confusion and frustration are returning. On Wednesday, for instance, the 121-year-old New York Auto Show, which was to be held from Aug. 20-29, was nixed after being postponed earlier this yearHere’s’syearHere’s’s a statement.”
“It is with great disappointment that the upcoming 2021 New York International Automobile Show at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center has been canceled due to the growing incidences of the COVID-19 Delta variant and the increased measures announced recently by state and local officials to stop its spread”.”
Thshow’s’sThshow’s’s management expected 1 million visitors with exhibits from 34 carmakers and more than 100 other vendors. Planned introductions reportedly included the 2022 Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Z, and Subaru WRX.
Consider the economic impact. Anthat’s’sAnthat’s just one event. Think of the thousands of wedding planners, school administrators, and restaurant owners (never mind the folks who run hospitals and urgent care facilities) trying to make their way through all this.
YesFriday’s’sYesFriday’s jobs report for July was strong (some call the” “pre-Del” a” numbers), but caution signals are beginning to flash. IHS Markit recently downwardly revised its global GDP growth forecast to 5.8% in 2021, noting tha” “global economic growth depends increasingly on COVID-19 vaccination progress”.” On Thursday, Amazon and Wells Fargo announced they were delaying their return to work schedules (and they are not alone) because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19.
Another indicator, the yield on the 10-year Treasury bond that climbed smartly since last fall, signaling a pick-up in economic activity, peaked at the end of March. It has since fallen from 1.7% to a low of 1.1%, reflecting investors” newfound fear of a slowdown.
In a sense, thenwe’rere back to square one with COVID-19, again trying to discern the indiscernible — the course of a pandemic. The implicationcouldn’t’t be larger. Which brings me back to my opening question: Where are we exactly? Not the beginning clearly, but are we near the end, or is it more like the middle?
To help figure that out, I decided to go back and look at the trajectory of previous pandemics for clues. For sure, there are limitations to that kind of inquiry as much of this is (literally) ancient history. Still, it turns outhere’s’southere’s’s actually some pretty exciting stuff to noodle over.
Obviously, the most helpful parallel is the Spanish (more on that word in a second) flu pandemic of 1918-1920. And there, right away, that jumps out at you … all those years. Does that inform us in any way?
Perhaps a bit.’
Firstlet’s’sFirstlet’s pinpointed precisely when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Obviously, in 2019, ergo the name, but remember it was the last month of the year. Here is the salient line from an article in The Lancet:”
“In late December 2019, an outbreak of mysterious pneumonia characterized by fever, dry cough, and fatigue, and occasional gastrointestinal symptoms happened in a seafood wholesale wet market, the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, in Wuhan, Hubei, China”.”
(The exact origins of the disease, whether it was zoonotic — i.e., jumping species — or lab leak, are, of course, a matter of debate. You might not have seen that former President Donald Trump recently suggested that China pay the U.S. reparations for COVID-19 an” “$10 trillion, thawouldn’t’t cover it.”)
Who better to put that question to than one of the National InstituteHealth’slth’s 1918 flu experts, Dr. David M. Morens, senior adviser to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In 2007, Morens co-auth “red “The 1918 Influenza Pandemic: Insights for the 21st Ce “try” with none other than Dr. Anthony Fauci.
How much can we look to 1918, I ask? Turns out not that m “ch.
“If you look back at the news reports over the last year-and-a-half, you see that everybody and tbrother’sher’s making predictions awhat’shat’s going to happen, but nobody k” ows,” Morens s” ys. “And most of the predictions are wrong, becausdon’tdon’t have anything to compare it to. Infludoesn’tesn’t provide us a perfect template to figurewhat’shat’s happening with SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID” 19.].”
Why is that?
To borrow a phrase “rom “Anna Kare” ina:” Pandemics are like unhappy families; each one is problematic in its own way. The 1918 pandemic was different from this one in two broad ways. First, the 1918 virus acted very differently (it tended to arrive and leave a community much more intense). And second, the times were different.
It occurred during a World War and before viral vacciLet’sLet’s first drill down into the two viru” es. “The flu and SARS-CoV-2 are both made from RNA, they’reey’re completely differ “ent,” Morens s “They’reey’re as different as a man and a mouse. As different as apples and ora” ges.” NB: When I asked Morens which one was worse, he picked the influenza of 1918 because it was much more lethal.
The specific biological distinction — spelled out in this excellent article in The Conversation from 2020 (written by two University of Pittsburgh PhDs) — is pretty technical. Still, I will tell you that those differences have several implications. For one thing, as this research paper no “es, “Victims of the 1918 influenza mostly died from secondary bacterial pneumonia, while victims of COVID-19 mostly died from an overactive immune response resulting in organ fai “ure.”
Another important distinction from The Conversation article is that the influenza virus was much better at mutating, which was terrible, of course, except that it led to more predictable and seasonal waves of the disease. The virus that causes COVID-19 is actually more stable, which should mean “hat “physical distancing and mask-wearing will keep its spread in check and, ideally, keep infection and death rates st “day,” according to the article.
But it also means “hat “as states loosen non-pharmaceutical interventions, the U.S. will likely experience a long plateau of continued new infections at a steady rate, punctuated by periodic local fl” res,” the article added.
The authors suggest that outbreaks of COVID will be driven not so much by mutations — Delta variant notwithstanding — but by exposure of non-immune (mostly unvaccinated) people to the virus. here here’s the money l “ne: “Future spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths will very likely be driven by what peopl” do.” (Emphasis mine.) In other words, I don’t get vaccinated and change social behavior when needed; the disease will stay with us.
Another critical distinction between COVID-19 and the 1918 influenza or Spanish flu pandemic, as noted previously, is historical context. The first case of the influenza pandemic is generally considered to have been in Kansas in March 1918. (Scientaren’tren’t sure why.) The disease came and went in those waves above, pretty much petering out after wave number four in the spring of 1920, or after almost exactly two years.
An estimated 500 million, or about a third ofworld’srld’s population, were infected, with some 25 million to 50 million deaths (more than the 20 million who died in World War I), including some 675,000 deaths in the That’shat’s just a bit more than the current 615,000 U.S. deaths from COVID-19. Still, the U.S. population in 1918 was around 103 million, versus 328 million today. Those 675,000 deaths back then would be the equivalent of 2.1 million deaths today.
You may not be surprised to learn “hat “Spanis” flu” is a misnomer, as Wikipedia explains “ns: “To maintain morale, [World War I] censors suppressed bad news in the belligerent countries, but newspapers were free to reportepidemic’smic’s effects in neutral Spain, including the grave illness of King Alfonso XIII. These stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard-hitting, leading press outside Spain to adopt the ‘ame ‘Sp” nish” ‘” lu.'”
(BTW, the Spanish called it the French flu, and the French called it the American flu but changed to Spanish to not upset a war ally. And of course, French fries areca “led “Pommes f “it’s” in France, that that’s another story.”)
Speaking of World War I, that conflict greatly exacerbated the effects and impact of the influenza pandemic. Overcrowding in troop camps, ships, and POW prisons, movements of large armies around the globe, as well as poor health conditions and nutrition probably all increased transmission, augmented mutation, and redpeople’sple’s resistance to the virus.
Just like today, some folks back in 1918 and 1919 resisted wearing masks. And also, just like today, some politicians figured it out and didn’tidn’t. In 2018, on the 100th anniversary of the influenza pandemic, my pal Shelley Hearne, then president of CityHealth and now director of Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health Advocacy, wrote about how two cities, Philadelphia and St.
Louis reacted to the influenza pandemic with radically different consequences (Philly did nothing and thousands died, while St. Louis — then one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S. — locked down and experienced one of the lowest excess death rates in the nation.) Hearne, presciently, urged us to take heed.
‘Not like flipping a light switch.’
Back in February, I asked Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (and Fauci’suci’s boss), about when we will be back to nor” al. “Well, define normal, Andy, becaudon’tdon’t twe’llwe’ll ever go back to quite the way we were before this, in some fairly trivial “ays,” he s “ys.
“So, for instance, as NIH director, I used to spend an awful lot of time taking very long trips to meetings where I might speak for 45 minutes and then get back on a plane and go home again. You can do this kind of thing pretty effectively using Zoom and other means” res.”
Bottom line, Dr. Collins, please. When is nor” al? it’s going to happen grade “lly,” Collins said. “It’s “It’s not like flipping a light swift’s It’s going to be bit by “bit.” Morens offered a more sobering perspective” ve. “This virus looks like it will never go “way,” he s “ys. We’re stuck with it forever, probably. And eventually, people will get immune by being affected or by being vaccinated. And that would hopefully make the virus circulate at a much lower level and kill fewer people. But the scenario that we had with 1918, where the virus becomes seasonal and we only get it in the winter and it’s wimpy most years, but some it’s worse than others, we don’tdon’t knothat’shat’s going to happen. And for a year and a hthere’sere’s no evidence that it will happen, but doesn’tesn’t me won’t “n” t.”
“The viruses are moving targets that are evolving at a very rapid “ate,” Morens s” ys. “And whatever is true today probably is not going to be true six months from now. The least you can say is these vaccines protect people long enough to buy time, to make better vaccines, or perhaps in the future give additional doses of the vaccine “nes.” It sounds trying and complex, and it is. But we can manage this thing. Overcome it. We just need to be vigilant.
The key takeaway to me is this. Between our understanding of this new virus and our game-changing vaccines, we can control our own destiny in a wacouldn’tldn’t have been 100 years ago. However, not enough of us comply with mask mandates and are willing to get vaccinated. I keep going back to that line in The Conversation arti “le: “Future spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths will very likely be driven by what peopl” do.”
That means us. This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning BrieAugust 7ust, 7, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe. Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer. Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.