Monday, June 24, 2013

The fourth seal

Immediately, another horse appeared, deathly pale, and its rider was called Plague, and Hades followed at his heels.
It has been nearly 20 years since I read Laurie Garrett's hair-raising The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, a big book, impressively researched by a first-rate science reporter. It was a book that made you want to wear a mask over your mouth and nose, and avoid airplanes and crowded places. Especially airplanes.

Now comes David Quammen with another big book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. Another pale horse, another pale rider. Time to break out the masks again?

In between, we had SARS, which infected eight thousand people and killed nearly eight hundred. A 78-year-old Canadian grandmother carried the virus by air from Hong Kong to Toronto. A few weeks later a man with a cough flew from Hong Kong to Beijing. By the time the plane landed, twenty-two other passengers and two crew members were infected. ACHOO!

And I've had a cold since I got off the plane at Shannon nearly two weeks ago.

Colds we aren't worried about, at least not yet. A sniffle isn't going to kill me. Highly lethal viruses, like Ebola, kill off their hosts quickly before the virus can spread too far; the virus is in that sense its own worse enemy. A virus that spreads easily and widely, like flu, sickens its hosts but kills few. The viruses that Garrett and Quammen are worried about find the lethal sweet spot, burning like a slow-moving grass fire, rather than a raging inferno, keeping their hosts alive just long enough to insure transmission.

If a cough or a sneeze is a virus's way of getting around, maybe you could say the same thing for airplanes. Who runs the world anyway? Us? Or the viruses and bacteria? Natural selection does not just work for our benefit.