He Saw the Coronavirus Coming

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S2: Yeah. When did you first hear about what was happening in Duhon with this outbreak?

S3: Oh, I know exactly when it was New Year’s Eve. It was during the day.

S4: This is Peter Dasch back. He’s a zoologist, lives in New York, works in China.

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S3: We were following rumors on the Internet in China about this outbreak. And I got these translated Internet sites that were saying not only is it a new virus, it’s a corona virus. I think people knew about that.

S4: Corona virus is one of Peter’s areas of expertise. He’s been studying how infections like this new one covered 19 move. They start out in an animal like, say, a bat, then they jump.

S5: The way this one did, you know, the minute we got the sequence for that was released, we quickly matched that up and showed that it was about virus. And not only that, as very close to the group we’ve been working on. So, you know, you’re emotional. This is excitement in a way, because this is exactly what you’ve been saying is going to happen and then fear that our lives are going to be turned upside down and people are going to die, which is exactly what’s happening right now.

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S4: If you were looking at this Corona virus outbreak and seeing a game of whack a mole with doctors all around the world urgently trying to quash this virus. Peter, he sees it differently. He sees a game of chess with patterns and predictability.

S6: A few years back, Peter was working with the World Health Organization, plotting out what the next global pandemic could look like when he and some other scientists came up with the idea of disease X, Disease X would hit this kind of epidemiological sweet spot. It would transmit easily from person to person. It would be deadly, but not too deadly.

S7: So it’s going to be a disease, the slightly more fatal than flu. It’s going to be disease that spreads through global air travel. It’s going to be a disease with kind of hidden symptoms early on that maybe mimic another disease that we’re used to. So we don’t go and get tested. This sounds just like cold yet. It’s exactly like cold 98. And that’s exactly the scenario where we’re getting ready for.

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S8: But even though doctors like Peter knew this virus was coming, he says we didn’t get ready. Not soon enough.

S2: I was listening to some experts talk about covered and they were they were referring to it as a black swan. They were saying, yeah, of course, is this phrase. It means an unexpected event that couldn’t be anticipated. Yeah.

S3: That really kind of you know, there’s a lot of this black swan talk out there. These are not black swan events. We’ve been talking about them for 15 years and saying not only pandemics increasing in frequency, we’re going to get more of them more often. They’re getting bigger. And China is right in the middle of a coronavirus hotspot.

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S9: That’s why we were there for 15 years working on these viruses today on the show.

S10: Peter says even when this outbreak is contained, it’s not going to be the last.

S11: But if we pay close attention to what’s happening right now, next time, it could be different. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S4: Peter D’Asia runs a non-profit called Eco Health Alliance, which tracks illnesses that start in wildlife. It’s the kind of organization you might not know very much about until an outbreak like this one, when suddenly the data they collect is really important.

S5: So there are new meetings every week. Now we’ve got a W.H.O. one hour phone call with all the folks from around the world. We’ve got an NIH one hour phone call. National Academies is setting up committees to analyze what’s going on. So you want to get involved and try and do everything you can and win or even, you know, win at the groups that are producing test kits and vaccines and doing the lab work. I mean, they’re incredibly busy.

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S4: Peter knows how hard it can be to convince people to pay attention to the causes of outbreaks. When Peter was training, he was more interested in the animals that harbor pathogens rather than the pathogens themselves.

S5: And, you know, I went to college, I did zoology, but then it was cold. And in the final year, you’ve got a research project. And I was kind of late that morning to the sign on list and all the good ones had gone. And I got lumbered with parasites of reptiles. I you know, this is so boring. But it’s actually fascinating. I really got into this idea that there are these organisms that live within others and take the nutrients away and use that and then spread. And it’s this sort of machine like way that they do that that I find absolutely fascinating. And the idea that we adjust to them, another animal that’s strange.

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S4: I love that idea that like we’re just hosts to them.

S5: Well, you know, it’s worse than that. They really don’t want to kill us, actually. It’s not to their evolutionary advantage to kill the host. But if they can move swiftly through a global population, they’ve achieved a goal. And that’s exactly what Cauvin 19s doing now.

S12: Tens of thousands of people have been diagnosed with this disease worldwide.

S2: More than 3000 deaths and very few in the U.S. but I wonder if you think we actually know how many are in the U.S. because it’s been reported that we’re not really testing that much. And of course, that that might change in the next few days, but we haven’t been until now.

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S3: Well, first of all, we never know. I mean, in most outbreaks, you never really know. The time the outbreak is is beginning. What the true caseload out in the environment is, oh, you can see the people who come to hospital and get tested and get diagnosed and people with mild infections or even people who are pretty sick and just don’t make it in poor communities, communities that have trouble traveling. You don’t see them. So there will be many more cases out there right now in the States. That’s pretty clear. And what’s interesting is because we’ve been slow to start testing over the next few days when people are rolling out those test kits, we’re going to find a lot of these and it’s going to look like this thing is spreading out of control. Well, the truth is, it’s already been there probably, and we’re not finding that out.

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S4: Is this kind of chaos with a virus like this? Is it unexpected?

S3: No, it’s exactly what you’d expect. And look, I remember traveling through Singapore Airport during the SARS outbreak and it was just empty and very surprising. And, you know, there was me and a few of those coming off the plane and to a quiet, empty airport. We see a lot of those strange, surreal scenes going on and things that you don’t expect from schools being closed for a month in Japan. You know, we’re looking at the Olympics. We’ve seen so many conferences and meetings closed. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Olympics gets closed down because of this. Diseases have an impact and they’re often quite scary at the time.

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S4: By this point, Peter seen enough outbreaks that he feels like he knows how this story goes. First, there’s the panic. The search for something or someone to blame in the case of this grudnoff virus for a little while. There was a story that the outbreak got its start at a local food market and Suhan. But stories like this, Peter says they can get in the way of the bigger picture. More and more people are living and working closer and closer to wildlife. It isn’t just about one or two individuals putting people at risk. The risk also comes from clearcutting rainforests, remote mining, even widespread suburbanization.

S5: Yeah, I would say we are the cause of almost all emerging diseases. I mean, do you mean when you say that?

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S3: Well, we don’t do that on purpose, but we just it’s our everyday way of going about business on the planet that seems to be driving this. And the three really big things that drive these are places on the planet where there’s lots of wildlife diversity because they carry viruses, some of which can become pandemic in us and places where human population is really dense and growing. And because our contact with wildlife is higher says more chance for the viruses to get into us.

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S2: So we’re humans are bumping up against these very diverse ecosystems.

S3: And it’s the way we bump up. So we found that things like land use, change, deforestation, road-building, mining, agricultural intensification. They’re the reason that we push ourselves into wildlife habitat and get infected.

S2: So your group, the Eco Health Alliance, you’ve actually gone into these areas where humans and animals are meeting. You started testing the animals, testing the humans. You’ve created a virus library.

S10: Yeah. So tell me a little bit of a bit about what you’ve found once you started testing everyone and just sort of looking around like what’s normal here? Like what’s going on?

S5: Well, you know, we work in countries in these emergency’s hotspots and we try to do this in a sensitive way, culturally sensitive. Why? Because a lot of the things that are going on there that are clearly high risk of a real deep part of people’s culture. So changing that is going to be really tough in communities in southwest China. We asked people about what interaction they had with wildlife and we found that there’s a higher risk of people have contact with wildlife and eat wildlife of them getting respiratory disease. Then we’ve got other other viruses in other parts of the world that are also spilling over at a background. Right. We need to look at that. We need to understand more about that and really start to work with those those people on the front line, the vulnerable communities that need to understand the health risks. And we can work with them to try and change behavior slowly and gradually. So safer.

S13: I mean, part of what I think is so interesting about the work you’re doing is that you’re building this case that our whole system right now, the way we interact with the environment, the economic sort of engine that’s driving us is part of the cause of these pandemics. I never hear it talked about like that on cable news. Yeah. Why?

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S5: We’ve gotten used to this idea that we’re in a reductionist strategy to deal with things. We find this virus. We learn everything about the molecules on the surface. We have really cool high tech solutions to design vaccines and produce some truly doesn’t really work quick enough to actually deal with an outbreak. These outbreaks are moving now in a matter of days. We saw cells emerge after two months and spread globally. This one took two weeks. We have got time to develop vaccines in droves. But the public demanded and expects it.

S4: Peter estimates there are over a million viruses. I covered 19 out there. He and his group have found 500 different coronaviruses in bats alone, but it took them 10 years to do that work.

S3: That’s what we need to do. We need to do that on a scale so we discover all the rest of those viruses.

S2: It’s it just sounds like it would take forever if you took you 10 years to find 500.

S3: Well, then that’s just one group. We need more many more groups in many more regions doing this work. We then need to get those sequences into the hands, the vaccine designers, because what’s the point in spending billions of dollars designing a vaccine to SaaS if the one that emerges this year is 20 percent different and the vaccine doesn’t work? So let’s have vaccines across the whole group. You know, we’ve heard about the universal flu vaccine. Let’s have a universal coronavirus vaccine. Let’s have a universal Ebola virus vaccine. I think that’s common sense.

S2: But getting governments to commit to that seems really challenging. And yeah, I have to. I’ve covered the flu before, and I think every virologist I speak to thinks that a universal flu vaccine is the solution rather than what we do now, which is hypothesize about what’s going to be the strain and we give you what you think will work. And, you know, we haven’t really tested it and we’ll see afterwards how well we did. But the truth is, it costs billions of dollars and there’s not a manufacturer who’s like, sign me up for that.

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S5: Well, there’s the NIH. You’re working on it. And the reason they’re working is there are a couple of really good voices, the advocates for that strategy. We need those voices out there that advocate for dealing with pandemics as a process, not with individual pathogens. And it’s not just vaccines and drugs. I mean, we also have the basic public health message of getting out there into rural communities that are in the frontline and helping them reduce risk, talking to companies that are building roads to new mining facilities and talking about building a clinic. We’re doing that.

S14: And as we think about a more sustainable approach to doing business, this should be part of sustainability, sustainability for health and the environment.

S10: Someone who wrote about you last week said you had this calm frustration. That’s great. Do you still feel like that?

S3: Well, I’m constantly frustrated by it. Yeah, it’s true. I don’t know who wrote it, but they’re right. You’re welcome. Was frustrating as telling people repeatedly, we will see more and more frequent pandemics and then not seeing much change to get ready for that. That’s the frustrating part. But you got to carry on. You got to just keep fighting forwards. And even now, a lot of us are in the middle of this outbreak. We were in New York getting ready for the chaos over the next few weeks. And we’re only saying, well, in two years when this is kind of we’re used to this one. Are we then gonna be getting ready for the next one? You know, at some point you get more cynical and think we forget too easily. And that’s the frustration we need to be really getting ready for these things.

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S2: You say we’re getting ready for the chaos in the next few weeks. Do you think there’s gonna be chaos in the next few weeks?

S3: It depends. Yeah. I mean, there’s gonna be chaos at certain levels. I mean, for sure, as all of us eventually start to know someone who’s been infected, no matter how logical you are, you start to get some fear and you think, well, how did I make contact? Am I at risk? What am I doing wrong? And I think in some cases it’s gonna be real significant outbreaks that are just seeded and moving forwards. And when we get to find out about them, they’re gonna be pretty hard to control.

S2: You know, there is this piece in the Times this weekend where the writer was advocating for more aggressive action. He is basically saying, listen, in 1918, when we had a flu pandemic, you know, the places that really shut things down, closed the schools, closed the ball games, you know, just had people wearing masks to keeping their distance from each other. Closing ports, if necessary.

S4: They were the ones that had less of an impact. Do you think we’ll need to get that aggressive in United States?

S5: I think we’re going to see things happen that we didn’t expect would happen. I think we’re going to see personal invasion of our daily lives in a way that we’ve not seen it for a long time. And some people disagree, and that will lead to conflicts. And I think that’s gonna be interesting to see. How far will public health services go to actually force people to change behavior? And don’t forget, we’ve got to get ready for the long term here. Um, school closures might work to delay things for a few days or weeks, but at some point this thing is probably going to be around in our human population for a couple years, maybe indefinitely. So at some point we have to get back to a more or less normal society with schools and businesses and global trade and travel.

S15: And I really hope it’s a wakeup call. I really hope that we start to get more proactive on this. But again, let’s talk in two years and see if that really happen.

S16: Peter Dasch, OK, thank you so much for joining me. My pleasure. Really good. Peter Darshana is the president of Eco Health Alliance. All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Jason de Leon Morris Silvers, Mary Wilson and Danielle Hewitt. I’m Mary Harris. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.