The pandemic caused by the new coronavirus (COVID-19) from Wuhan, China, is now a serious and global problem. And that problem has been made even worse by a culture of constant alarmism making it hard to distinguish real threats from exaggerated claims, as the well-known science writer Matt Ridley has pointed out. But even when faced with the genuine threat of a pandemic, there are reasons to take heart and think that humanity will rise to the challenges ahead.
First, humanity has never been better prepared technologically to deal with a pandemic. We are fortunate to live in an age of drive-through diagnostic test stations, advanced computer modeling that can help predict where and how fast the virus will spread, real-time interactive online outbreak-tracking maps, and medical supplies delivered by self-driving cars. An AI epidemiologist sent the first warnings about the novel coronavirus. Information about the virus is able to travel faster than the virus itself, arming individuals with knowledge about how to slow the disease’s spread.
In addition to progress toward a vaccine, several promising treatments for those who have been infected are currently being tested.
There is currently no vaccine and no cure for the disease. However, medical research is faster and of higher quality than at any other time in history. The amount of time that it takes to successfully create a vaccine for a disease has come down thanks to scientific advances, better communications technology and more extensive cooperation among scientists across the globe.
Research for a vaccine to help stem the COVID-19 outbreak got under way within just hours of the virus being identified. Animal testing of the vaccine has shown promise. Human trials are now just weeks away, with a vaccine expected to be ready for public use within the next 12 to 18 months. That means that a vaccine could become available within two years of the virus’s emergence. For comparison, it took 48 years to create a successful vaccine for the polio virus.
In addition to progress toward a vaccine, several promising treatments for those who have been infected are currently being tested. Potential treatments under evaluation range from repurposed HIV-fighting drugs, such as lopinavir and ritonavir, as well as chloroquine phosphate, which is normally used to treat malaria and certain liver infections.
Second, human beings have an incredible capacity for voluntary cooperation, particularly in times of adversity. In South Korea, the damage of the outbreak has so far been successfully minimized by widespread and mostly voluntary cooperation. The vast majority of the country’s mostly healthy people have opted to remain at home (i.e., to self-quarantine). Moreover, the Koreans are avoiding travel and large gatherings. While those who have tested positive for COVID-19 are under mandatory quarantine, the vast majority of “social distancing” measures in the country are voluntary.
Similarly, in the United States, where the outbreak is still in an early phase, private actors are swiftly choosing to take thorough action to slow the virus’s spread. Many U.S. companies and organizations are helping to safeguard the health of their employees by intensifying office-wide cleaning procedures, setting up hand sanitizer dispensers throughout their workspaces, and promoting social distancing by conducting meetings over the phone, canceling events and offering employees the option of working remotely when possible.
Human beings, when left to their own devices, are not only cooperative, but generous.
While some localities have banned large gatherings, purely voluntary social distancing measures are now widespread throughout the country. And technology is allowing the society to keep running. To name just a few examples: digital technology is enabling numerous universities to switch to online classes during the pandemic, letting churches empty their pews and broadcast sermons online, giving individuals the option of video-chatting instead of hosting family gatherings, and allowing think tanks to host online-only events.
Human beings, when left to their own devices, are not only cooperative, but generous. Numerous individuals are now offering to deliver groceries for elderly or immunocompromised neighbors who are at greater risk of severe complications from the virus. Private charity is stepping up to offer COVID-19 testing kits. That’s all the more important considering that the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) has come up short by refusing to test many potential cases and only recently lifting a ban on allowing private labs to test for the virus despite severe shortage in the government’s own testing capacity.
The threat from COVID-19 should be taken seriously, but there are reasons for rational optimism even during a pandemic.