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Saving Humanity from the Next Plague


Pandemics have a long history, from the Bubonic plague in the sixth century to the 1918 flu that killed millions of people around the world. And while no one can say for sure where the novel Coronavirus is headed, looking at what’s happened in the past may hold clues to future of this one.

The 1918 flu was the deadliest pandemic in modern history. Ron Fricker is a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech and co-author of a book with the subtitle “Saving Humanity from the Next Plague.”  He points out that flu actually started as a pretty innocuous disease, but when it mutated it became something much more virulent.

“And that's what really killed so many people back then," Fricker says. "And so, the terrible scenario here is, the Coronavirus gets worse somehow and it mutates.”

Fricker is a professor of statistics at Virginia Tech, whose research is focused on the performance of various statistical methods for use in disease surveillance. He says, the literature suggests, there’s a possibility COVID-19 is mutating. But it’s still far from clear if it is, and if so, what direction it could take.

“The question is, where is it going to go in terms of the spread and whether we will stamp it out. We don't know whether it's going to become a seasonal flu kind of strain, that's going to circulate around the world from summer to winter.” Or will it follow the pattern of the 1918 pandemic, when people ultimately developed what’s known as ‘herd’ immunity.  The virus ran its course and just sort of petered out.

“I think (that) could be an outcome here. It's just a function of, does the virus mutate or not? Once we know whether people are immune or not— those are sort of the two key pieces right there. If in fact, people get immunity and if this one does run its course, like the 1918 flu, and if it does not mutate, then eventually it could die out as well.”

And while many people have immunities to some strains of flu, there is no confirmation at this point that anyone one in the human population has immunity to COVID-19. 

Fricker says scientists now think that up to 25- per cent of people with Coronavirus could be asymptomatic but contagious.  

“If that is true then it is going to be really hard to think about ever containing the virus because you just don't know where it is unless you literally test everybody. And of course, we're not in a position to do that in this country at this point in time.”  

“Another difficulty with this virus is its incubation period, which is estimated to be around two weeks. “The data we look at today is really historical data. That is, it tells us something about what was going on two or three weeks ago. It doesn't tell us what the current state is and that takes us back to testing again.”

Fricker says, if we can’t do more testing, then the best approach is to over re-act to the problem until we have better data to work with.

He is the co-author of "Monitoring the Health of Populations by Tracking Disease Outbreaks: Saving Humanity from the Next Plague,” which was recently published.


Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.
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