SARS-CoV-2, COVD-19
and the SF community

A briefing

The current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak concerns many SF fans
and impacts on the work of fan volunteer convention organisers.

Advance posted 20.3.16 (a fortnight before UK lockdown)
Scheduled to post 20.4.20 with SF² Concatenation, vol. 30 (3).

 

Quick links to sections below:-
                    Coronaviruses
                    Tackling the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic
                    Personal measures
                    COVID-19
                    Symptoms
                    Science fiction fans
                    Conrunners
                    Short-term future (April – November 2020)
                    Long-term future
                    The science fiction and the pseudo-science
                    Final words

 

The current SARS-CoV-2 outbreak is now affecting the national and international science fiction community.  Already some SF fans living in northern Italy have experienced a few weeks of self-isolation with all but necessary travel banned by law under penalty of a three month jail sentence.  Descriptions of life from these have included as if being in an SF film.  Meanwhile, as the virus spreads, and cases of the resulting disease (COVID-19) mount, questions are being asked as to the viability of some forthcoming SF events: some at the time of writing (March 2020) have already been cancelled.  It therefore may be useful to have a basic, preliminary briefing on the science and likely fan impacts that goes a little beyond the arguably cautious, limited statements some authorities have made.  This is an on-going situation, so irrespective of the below, it is always best to seek guidance from regional health authorities and international bodies as well as, of course, your own clinician.

          Sadly, the unwelcome fact is that, before this is all over, for most of us we will lose someone from our broader circle of family, friends and acquaintances.  Tragically, for some of us it will be someone in our closer circle.  Therefore unhappily, it is almost certain that we are, during the course of all this, going to miss some within the science fiction community at large.  Yet – while we will all be inconvenienced to some degree or other – fortunately the vast majority will get away with at worst only something equivalent to a bout of flu.  Some, may even get away with barely noticeable symptoms.  So, in the words of Douglas Adams and Corporal Jones, 'Don't panic': panicking will benefit absolutely no-one at all.

          There is a lot of ground to cover, so you may find it more useful for your own needs to use the above quick links to the relevant sections that may interest you.

 

Coronaviruses
Coronaviruses (or more specifically viruses in the Coronaviridae) include the common cold but some can be lethal.  In 2003 there was an outbreak of SARS-CoV that results in SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).  Looking back at that 2003 SARS outbreak, we see that it killed 774 of the 8,098 people infected.  In 2018, research showed that a pool of variant SARS virus existed in horseshoe bats in China.  It is very likely that this variant mutated in an intermediate species and here it is considered that civet cats were the probable intermediate.  The virus responsible for the current (2020) outbreak is similar to SARS.

          In 2013 there was an outbreak of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) coronavirus (MERS-nCV) resulting in 2,494 cases, of which 858 died.  The MERS disease, from MERS-nCV, was more lethal than SARS but less infectious.

          The new coronavirus is called 2019-nCoV or SARS-CoV-2 that can result in a disease COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease-(20)19).  'Can result' because some infected are asymptomatic: they do not go on to exhibit the disease but can spread it.  To be clear, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses has officially named the virus SARS-CoV-2 and the World Health Organisation has termed the resulting disease COVID-19.  So far, the closest match to the new Coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, has been found in a bat in China’s Yunnan province.  This variant from bats is also thought to have mutated in an intermediate species.  Here the pangolin is considered a possibility as a smuggled pangolin was found to have been infected with a coronavirus whose receptor-binding domain's (RBD – the protruding bits of the virus that lock on to proteins on the surface of human cells) genome within the virus' genetic code had a 99% genetic match to the corresponding part of SARS-CoV-2.  However, this is not to say that there is a 99% match with the virus' whole genome.  So the jury is still out as to the intermediate species.

          Perhaps the most famous viral pandemic of modern times was the 1918-'20 influenza pandemic, commonly known as Spanish flu.  Though the virus behind this was an RNA virus this was not a coronavirus outbreak but caused by a virus similar to the H1N1 influenza virus that was behind the 2009 swine flu outbreak.  Yet given that, the 1918-'20 Spanish flu pandemic consisted of 500 million people infected (about 27% of the then World population) and killed between 20 – 50 million, outbreaks of human-disease-causing RNA viruses have to be taken most seriously.

 

Tackling the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is being dealt with by a number of countries indifferent ways.  In our evermore highly connected world of the 21st century, it is very difficult to contain an outbreak to one region or country.  The SARS-CoV-2 outbreak originated in China.  Its political regime is dictatorial and this is a double-edged sword for any curved ball that comes its way.  On one hand, being dictatorial, it has been possible for the government to quicky instigate travel bans, have strict curfews, restrict the numbers going outdoors and meeting and all this has served to help stabilise the outbreak.  On the other for the authorities accustomed and unwilling to accept any word of dissent, accepting that they have a national problem does not come easy.  On 3rd February (2020) the Chinese government accused the US of causing "panic" in its response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak.  Worse, the Chinese authorities ignored early warnings from their own clinicians.  A couple of months earlier, back in December (2019) eight clinicians, including one Li Wenliang, circulated colleagues early warnings that they may be seeing the beginnings of a novel, SARS-like virus outbreak.  The authorities, instead of listening to them, arrested them, investigating them for "spreading rumours" and they were told by police to "stop making false comments" and that they "severely disturbed the social order".  Li Wenliang was forced to sign a confessional letter!  In February Li Wenliang died from COVID-19 and this resulted in an outpouring on Chinese social media.  For a while, the top two trending hash-tags on China's leading social media websites were "Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology" and "We want freedom of speech".  Both hash-tags were quickly censored.  Nonetheless, the truth is that had he been listened to there may have been a chance to contain the outbreak.

          Once the authorities realised what was going on, China's response to the outbreak was multipronged including locking down public meetings and whole cities as well as curfewing to reduce numbers on the streets.

          I am not going to comment on the success and failures of numerous measures across the globe save to point out one issue that has largely been missing from the debate.  Crowded air and train travel (commuter rush hours especially) are spread hot spots.  Here it is important to have good air ventilation. This might seem counterintuitive as one principal means of spread is cough and sneeze droplet suspension and air circulation will enhance spread. However raising air throughput – ventilation filtered or flushed -- in planes and trains carriages dilutes the viral load with each volume of fresh air added.  Mandatory increasing plane and rail carriage air changes should have been an enforced, early countermeasure.

          In Britain, the key goal has been to first prevent the epidemic taking hold and then to prevent the health system from becoming overloaded.  Normally, with an epidemic the typical pattern of cases is a binomial-like curve (think a sort of squished probability curve and indeed the 'normal' probability distribution curve is a special form of binomial).  This curve has a peak.  The sharper the peak the more cases there are seeking treatment at that time.  So the trick is to flatten this curve, reducing and spreading the period of the peak number of cases over a longer time period.  To this end the UK has adopted a coronavirus action plan with four key responses.

Isolate / Contain.  Detect early cases, follow up close contacts, and prevent the disease taking hold in this country for as long as is reasonably possible.

Delay.  Slow the spread in this country, if it does take hold, lowering the peak impact and pushing it away from the winter season.

Research.  Better understand the virus and the actions that will lessen its effect on the UK population; innovate responses including diagnostics, drugs and vaccines.

Mitigate.  Provide the best care possible for people who become ill, support hospitals to maintain essential services and ensure ongoing support for people ill in the community.

          Pushing the peak further into the future while protecting the most vulnerable cohorts of the population means that only the less vulnerable will become infected.  Once over the infection peak, those that had been infected will likely have immunity.  Here, the greater the proportion of the population that is immune then the closer the population is to acquiring what is called herd immunity: crossing the herd immunity threshold (HIT) or reaching the herd immunity level (HIL).  Yet, herd immunity is usually only achieved once a very large proportion of the population is immune: when it has reached its HIT / HIL.  The problem is that this may take time which means longer social/economic disruption and the longer length of time needed to protect vulnerable cohorts of the population.

          See also Short-term future and Long-term future below.

 

Personal measures
SARS-CoV-2 spreads primarily through droplets sneezed or coughed.  These can float for a very limited time (seconds to minutes) and inhaled by those nearby.  They also settle on surfaces where the virus can functionally survive for some time (a number of hours).  It is therefore important, when out and about, not to touch your own face, nose and eyes.  When you return home always wash your hands with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds.  Other measures include wiping surfaces with (hypochlorite) bleach (preferable) or alcohol that is at least a 60% concentration (that's over 120 proof).

          Self-isolation as a preventative measure against personal infection (as opposed to prevent further transmission) is really only necessary for the elderly or the middle aged with underlying health problems.  Self-isolation basically means staying at home to strictly (emphasise 'strictly') avoid intimate (less than a metre) and prolonged contact with others.

          If you do become infected, or think you may have been infected through close contact with those who have gone on to express COVID-19 symptoms, then it is important to self-isolate so as not to infect others.  This is likely to be a very unpopular move, especially for the self-employed under 40s who may not suffer greatly from the worst effects of COVID-19 and may well not be able to afford to lose income.  This cohort of the population will likely be one of the drivers of the pandemic.

          Self-isolating at home in a residence shared with others that are possibly not infected basically means being confined to a single, well-ventilated room.  If there is no en suite bathroom (as often there will not) then others using the bathroom should clean the surfaces before they use it.  Keep people's towels, flannels and toothbrushes etc separate, and do not keep/store them in the bathroom.

          The upside to self-isolation is that it gives you the time to catch up on reading, writing, blogging, films, correspondence with past friends, etc.  Further, in the early 21st century, there is e-mail and social media, so we are only talking about physical isolation: communication need not be unduly impaired.  And if you can work from home then all the better.

          The quarantine period for those infected currently being employed is for 14 days.  (There is some minority evidence that this may not be quite long enough.) The self isolation period in the authorities 'delay' phase of control (when the government will restrict travel, ban public meetings etc) is at this moment (March 2020) unknown but is likely to last months (one or two, hopefully not three but alas likely many more. See also Long-term future below.)

          The dangers are that of – with time in self-isolation – becoming complacent: discipline is the watchword.

          If you are healthy and working, can minimise contact with others, and are young (under 40) then you have little to worry about compared to a normal influenza outbreak other than infecting the more vulnerable, including friends and loved ones.

          If you work in cities with a rush hour, and can time-shift so as to avoid the crowded rush hour(s), then do so.  If you can avoid using the metro/underground/tube, then do so: walking or cycling in any case is healthier.  If you can spend most of the working week working from home, or work from home with just popping into the office for an hour once or twice a week to pick up documents, catch-up etc, then this will lower your risk.

          The authorities may in the 'delay' phase, insist on households self-isolating if their jobs are not essential (working in health care, food supply and distribution, and key retail).  This government-imposed self-isolation needs to be taken seriously and the decision will not have been taken lightly due to economic impacts.

 

COVID-19
COVID-19 (COronaVIrus Disease-(20)19) is the disease that occurs from those infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and present symptoms. (Some will not express [noticeable] symptoms.)

          Different cohorts of the human population are susceptible to diseases caused by RNA viruses.  With the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-'20 it was the young and elderly that were most vulnerable, and the middle-aged least susceptible to its worst effects.  Then with SARS (2003) it seems that the middle-aged were most at risk, but the data is limited as the numbers infected were mercifully low.  Conversely, in early March (2020) China saw over 80,000 cases of COVID-19 and over 3,000 deaths.  The evidence from that country is that it is the elderly that are most susceptible.

          The picture that is emerging from the China data so far is that those infected and presenting COVID-19 symptoms aged between 10 and 39 experience a 0.3% mortality rate.  In actuality the risk of this cohort dying is most likely lower.  This is because the young seem to shrug of SARS-CoV-2 infection so easily that clinicians are unlikely to have detected all that have been infected.  We will only have a better idea once the pandemic is over and we can screen a representative sample of the population for the presence of antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. (This diagnostic is currently being developed and might possibly be available by the summer.)

          Those aged between 40 and 49 years of age have a double mortality rate compared with those younger, which is still a low rate.  Again this estimate may be a little high for the same reasons as with youngsters.

          Conversely, those aged 50 – 59 and those 60 – 69 seem to have mortality rates of 1.3% and 3.6% respectively.  The greatest mortality comes from those aged between 70 – 79 and the over 80s, with respective mortalities of 8% and 14.8%.

          It is important to dig down into these figures a little.  Of those in their fifties and sixties, the majority of deaths were among those with pre-existing health conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.  This means that the mortality rate for those without underlying health conditions within these cohorts is lower  and the mortality rate for those with underlying conditions higher.  This includes those that are obese (who are more likely to have cardiovascular issues, be pre-diabetic etc) and who smoke (who are more susceptible to pneumonia).

 

Symptoms
Based on current evidence, the main symptoms of COVID-19 are flu-like with a cough, a high temperature and, in severe cases, shortness of breath.  For those who are older, the symptoms are likely to be more severe.  Early data suggests that of those who develop an illness, the great majority will have a mild-to-moderate, but self-limiting illness – similar to seasonal flu.  The young are less likely to have a severe illness.  A minority of people who develop COVID-19 will incur complications severe enough to require hospital care, most often pneumonia.  In a small proportion of these, the illness becomes fatal.  All this is a general overview, and biology rarely strictly adheres to the norm: that some can cite aunt Matilda, who lived to 100 smoking 10 cigarettes a day, does not alter the fact that for the majority smoking is clearly and certainly deleterious to health – there are always outliers.  Given this, the young who do exhibit more severe symptoms of COVID-19 should seek medical attention.

          For most people flu symptom prophylactics should suffice.  (Only the few who develop complications with pneumonia should require specialist hospital treatment.  Again, this is likely to be the elderly, especially those with underlying health problems.  There is though some minority evidence that the infecting viral load may possibly be a factor and this is of concern for clinicians and healthcare workers: Dr Li Wenliang was not in the high-risk age with – as far as I know – pre-existing underlying health issues cohort.)

 

Science fiction fans
SF fans will be familiar with the trope of the 'global pandemic'.  There is much SF that employs this trope, from Matheson's I am Legend (1954), through Terry Nation's Survivors (1975 –'77) and Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven or even those that have pandemics only as a minor part of the plot backdrop, such as Adam Nevill's Lost Girl (2015).  Fortunately, SF exaggerates: the symptoms are often much worse and the mortality rate far higher in stories than in real life.

          In the real world – and fellow biologists forgive the teleology but it was good enough for Dawkins – viruses that kill their hosts are 'stupid' (not just selfish)!  They are 'stupid' because they are killing the population on which they rely to survive.  Biological evolution relies on the survival of the fittest and 'stupid' viruses are less fit to survive and so viruses severely impacting populations in the long-term usually don't impact in the long-term as they die out with their hosts.

          So again, in the words of Douglas Adams and Corporal Jones, 'Don't panic'.

          Nonetheless, once beyond the 'isolate / contain' initial phase and into the 'delay' phase, SF fans may wish to avoid going to crowded meetings and conventions.  Given that SF conventions have grown larger over the years, the risk of picking up an infection has increased.  My first British Eastercon was Skycon (1978) that saw roughly 600 attend and my first Worldcon, Seacon '79, saw a little over 3,000 gather.  Conversely, the 2018 and 2019 Eastercons both topped 1,000 attending, while the 2018 and 2019 Worldcons each saw attendances of over 5,000.  Consequently, the likelihood of picking up a bug (entomologists, excuse the non-technical term) at an SF con has increased, and for the past decade or so we are all aware of picking up infections at cons and even, in recent years, the term 'con crud' has come into vogue.

          For the elderly especially (60s and older), the question of whether or not to attend conventions during an outbreak should be considered most seriously.  However, even those younger might want to consider their social responsibility if their home nation has moved beyond the 'isolate / contain' of those infected and who have been in proximity to the infected initial phase and the convention's venue nation is moving towards the 'delay' phase.  Attending a convention does not constitute an 'absolute need' to travel.

          Fan registrants in the early phase of the pandemic who decide that they will not attend might consider dropping the convention committee a short e-mail letting them know of their decision.  This will help inform the con committee of fan feeling and plan accordingly: if those bowing out are few (and if there is no advice from authorities to the contrary) the committee may still continue with unchanged plans or perhaps decide that a slimmed-down con may be an option (possibly with extra YouTubing of programme items that may be welcomed especially by those registrants no longer able to attend).  If registrants no longer going can afford to forgo asking for a refund then they might not want to demand one: as, as this pandemic seems to be panning out, convention committees may welcome your 'donation' as they may still face venue booking and other costs.

          If the convention's venue-nation or region has already moved into the 'delay' phase then the decision will be out of fans and organisers hands as the authorities will already have banned large events.

          Attending small local, SF group meetings in uncrowded venues where attendance does not necessitate public transport, and the region is still in the 'isolate / contain' phase (with few local infections and with proximity candidates all isolated), should not present a problem.  (The local venue will probably welcome your trade.)  Obviously, if you have a cough, think you are running the beginnings of a temperature etc, then just don't go: be considerate. And while a persistent sniffle in itself (in the absence of preliminary CoVID19 symptoms) is not a SARS-CoV-2 issue, it is likely to be off-putting to others.

          Obviously, once in the 'delay' phase, all social gatherings, large and small, will be cancelled and movement curtailed with everyone likely to be largely confined to home.  This will continue for months (see Short-term future :April – November 2020) and Long-term future subsections below).

 

SF conrunners
SF convention organisers are in a slightly different position. Right now (February / March, 2020) convention committees will be checking their venue contracts and (assuming they have it) scrutinising their insurance policies.

          I am not an insurance expert, but my lay understanding is that unless the authorities have banned gatherings and the con committee pre-emptively decides to cancel the con, then insurance is unlikely to pay out.  If so, this may mean that convention committees will not rush to cancel.  Having said that, at the time of writing (March 2020) the London Book Fair has already cancelled its forthcoming fayre even though the UK had not at that time entered the delay phase when large events would be prohibited.

          Conrunners might wish to note that the Mission Impossible production team cancelled shooting in Venice before the authorities decided to lock the city and country down.  Also the James Bond production team have delayed by several months the release of their next film and they did this well before the UK implemented its delay phase.  The science fiction community, as might be expected, was ahead of the game.  By early-to-mid-February already a number of the year's major conferences were being cancelled, and not just in China or Asia, but also Europe.  Event cancellations continue.

          I do not have the space, nor will, to examine every SF convention's situation but note that most SF cons are held in the northern hemisphere (simply because that's where most of the planet's non-Polar land is located) and the national and international level ones are held mainly in the period from the northern hemisphere late spring to autumn which is the principal period of the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 outbreak.  In short, many conventions will be affected and their con committees should consider likely SARS-CoV-2 implications and plan for both 'slimmed down' and 'cancellation' contingencies.

          Responsible and thoughtful convention committees will seek to keep their registrants informed even if only initially at least with a holding message.  At the time of writing (mid-March 2020), the CoNZealand 2020 Worldcon has released a holding message urging registrants to take out insurance.  Meanwhile, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts has announced their ICFA 41: COVID-19, Cancellations, and Credits/Refunds policy. This enabled early cancellations by a certain date with full refunds and provided a warning effectively that until Florida enters the equivalent of UK's 'delay phase' then travel insurance was unlikely to pay out.  Their statement let those at high risk of COVID-19 complications and those that do not want to gamble to potentially having to self-isolate on return, to bow out, and for the organisers – depending on their registrants' response to their announcement – be in a position to plan for a 'slimmed down' contingency if necessary, assuming the 'cancellation' contingency is not mandated.

          Other examples include Swancon, the 2020 Australian national convention due to be held at the end of April.  Six weeks prior to that event the committee announced that: "In light of information from the Department of Health, the Western Australian Department of Health, and the advice of medical professionals in our [fandom] community… [the committee] have voted to cancel Swancon 2020."  They said that they would automatically transfer registrants to membership of the following year's even but, if any wished, they could contact the committee for a full refund.  Conversely, in the US the Seattle Emerald City Comic Con took a different route: they decided to move the event, delaying it. Their announcement said: "We have been closely monitoring the situation around the COVID-19 virus in Seattle, and, after many hours of conversation internally and consultation with local government officials and the tourism bureau, we have decided to move next week’s [event] to Summer 2020 with date and detail announcement forthcoming."

          In short, the message to convention organisers is to be informed and in turn to inform prospective event attendees.

          As noted above, if conrunners run a slimmed-down event, an extra effort to YouTube programme content would be particularly welcome, especially by those who had registered and are no longer able to attend.

          Conrunners might not begin to contemplate planning new SF conventions before mid-2021 -- see long-term future below.  The authorities -- assuming their policy is science-driven -- are unlikely to allow large gatherings of folk from a wide, geographically dispersed regions in the closing phases of the pandemic.  As the pandemic dies, there will be straggler cases of COVID-19 and those asymptomatic capable of spreading SARS-CoV-2.  The last thing the authorities, or anyone, wants is for one of these to infect a gathering of folk who then disperse back to their home regions.  Having said that, some authorities -- wishing desperately to return to economic normality -- may be tempted to ignore the science.  Also remember, even when there is a vaccine:  i) we will need to determine it is of high efficacy;  ii) we will need to have vaccinated to the HIL, and  iii) the vaccination will need to have taken effect in those vaccinated.  Each of these takes time beyond the beginning of a vaccination programme.  So the question conrunners may wish to ask themselves, in the light of this, is when in 2021 they realistically think holding conventions is sensible let alone responsible?

 

Short-term future (April – November 2020)
If in the future looking back to this time (March 2020), some of the above and what follows is likely to have been overtaken by events; such is the lack of benefit of hindsight.  However, it is almost certain that the spread of SARS-CoV-2, and the resulting COVID-19 impacts, will increase.  It is not sensationalist, but realistic, to say that things will get much worse before they get better.

          As with many RNA viruses that cause human disease, it is likely that the pandemic will be constrained to the flu season.  In the northern hemisphere, the flu season is considered as being from October through May, peaking around February.  In the southern hemisphere, the flu season runs roughly from May to October peaking somewhere around August.  (In the tropics things are less well defined due to warmth and humidity, not to mention that forest biomes have shade.)

          Outside of the tropics, summer consists of long days with some dry spells: sunlight and the lack of moisture kills viruses.  Furthermore, in the summer buildings are better ventilated so lowering viral load.  Though, as veteran SF fans who attend large, crowded summer conventions will know, a large, crowded convention held in the summer does not ensure immunity from con-crud.

          Nonetheless, with regards to SARS-CoV-2 it is hoped that by delaying the spread of the pandemic into the summer will provide a way of curtailing it.  All well and good, but because the seasons are diametrically opposite in the northern and southern hemispheres, it is possible that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic might perhaps jump to the southern hemisphere.

          The 1918-'20 Spanish flu pandemic did last over a year in three seasonal pulses.  It also reached the southern hemisphere to Australasia.

          One other thing with RNA viruses is that they do tend to mutate more than DNA viruses.  With the SARS-CoV (2003) the outbreak only lasted three to four months and was contained without mutation.  Yet for influenza, each year there are two vaccine formulations; one for the northern, and one for the southern hemisphere.

          So the big questions now (March/April 2020), are one, whether the new SARS-CoV-2 pandemic will jump to the southern hemisphere and, two, will it significantly mutate?  At the moment, we simply do not know.

          Significant mutation (note the 'significant') so that a sufficiently different strain emerges (as SARS-CoV-2 has from SARS-CoV) warranting a different vaccine, is the concern.  Minor mutation is less of a worry, and indeed can be used to help track the progress of the virus between nations.

 

Long-term future
The SARS-CoV (2003) outbreak was mercifully constrained, it lasted less than a year.  Alas, subsequently the MERS disease, from MERS-nCV, lasted many years and was not so constrained to the summer.

          If this pandemic remains a problem beyond the short-term then the need to protect the vulnerable cohorts of the population remains.  The difficulty here is (as previously mentioned ) is maintaining a continual high-level of dispscpline of isolation regimes.  This is do-able but does require sustained effort and vigilance by all.

          As a vaccine is unlikely to become available, following mass-production, much before the end of 2020 (it is more likely in 2021) and since (as already noted) it takes time to reach the HIL, acquiring herd immunity, the northern hemisphere autumn (September – November, 2020) and even winter, may see a second peak.  If this happens then those in the southern hemisphere will be concerned for their potential second peak (May – October, 2021).  Having said that, the chances of a mass-produced vaccine by then are favourable: this should not currently (Easter, 2020) preoccupy us.

          Expect the end -- with the prospect of a future return to full normality -- to be in sight before, or around, mid-2021: full normality (with large gatherings permitted and fully normalised international travel) will be unlikely much before then, and possibly could be even later.

          As noted above, the potential for SARS-CoV-2 to significantly mutate is also a possibility.  Governments should continue invest in on-going monitoring of the viruses' genome and its regional variations.  If significant mutation happens (note the 'if') and if the pandemic lasts for more than a year or two, there is the chance (note, only a chance) that the virus might become endemic in the human population.  To put this in perspective, there are currently four coronaviruses that continually circulate in the human population.  It may be (and beware this is speculation) that once the global population is exposed to SARS-CoV-2, and we develop a vaccine, that we will be immunised to this strain of the virus and less susceptible to subsequent mutations, so that subsequent COVID-19-related disease will have less impact.  So, once again, in the words of Douglas Adams and Corporal Jones, 'Don't panic'.

 

The science fiction and the pseudo-scientific
SF aficionados by definition love SF stories and that is all well and good.  We might even believe (without empirical scientific proof) that some SF tropes exist in real life – such as life on other planets, or that one day it is likely we will have full-blown artificial intelligence.  However, one of SF² Concatenation's principal readership groups are scientists who enjoy SF and they – as well as I suspect and hope our non-scientific readership – can distinguish between science fact and science fiction.  As much as I enjoy tales of flying saucers (and what's not to like about the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) this does not mean that neither I nor the majority SF fans believe that UFO's are alien craft whose occupants regularly kidnap and rectally probe folk in the countryside.

          Sadly, barely a couple of months into the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, and the underbelly of social media is seeing odious memes circulate.  These include that COVID-19 is spread by mobile phone/cell microwave masts or that it is all a governmental plot, or even a conspiracy by a secret elite to curb the population.  I do not know which is sadder: those that promulgate such garbage or the gullible that unequivocally accept it.  Terry Pratchett once warned that one of the dangers of having an open mind is to uncritically allow anything in.

          Almost relatedly, the former Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society Professor Sir Martin Rees has oft said, 'Better read first class science fiction than second class science: far more stimulating.'  The only corollary to which I'd make is better to read first class science than second class science fiction.  Consequently, all readers of this piece are urged to fact check and seek reputable sources.  Here, fortunately during this outbreak, the publishers of the principal science and clinical journals are making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 related content open access.  This includes: Nature, the British Medical Journal and Science.  Meanwhile reputable governmental as well as international agencies have much advice aimed for lay folk.  Among these are the following websites:-
                    National Health Service
                    Nature: The International Journal of Science
                    Science - Journal of the AAAS
                    World Health Organization

 

Final words

What seems like a lifetime ago, back in 2003 when looking at SARS, I said: "We can say with certainty that something like (or unlike) the 2003 SARS outbreak will happen again: you can count on it."  Today, 17 years on, it gives me no pleasure to have seemed prophetic, as I was certainly not: I was simply employing the modicum of biological knowledge I have managed to glean over the decades.  The thing to remember with viral outbreaks is that it is all part of growing up in a naturally evolved biosphere.  We have to learn to live with them and continually strive to prevent them.

Jonathan Cowie

 

Background reading used includes:-

Cohen, J. (2020) Sick time: Dozens of diseases wax and wane with the seasons. Will COVID-19?. Science, vol. 367, p1,294-7.

Cyranoski, D. (2020) Mystery deepens over animal source of coronavirus. Nature, vol. 579,
p18-9.

Emergency and Health Protection Directorate (2020) Coronavirus: action plan -- A guide to what you can expect across the UK. Department of Health and Social Care: London.

Kupferschmidt, K. (2020) Genome analyses help track coronavirus’ moves. Science, vol. 367, pp1,176-7.

Mallapaty, P. (2020) Why does the coronavirus spread so easily? Nature, vol. 579, p183.

Pitsiou, G. G. & Kioumis, I. P. (2020) SARS – BMJ Best Practice. BMA: London.

Service, R. F. (2020) Coronavirus epidemic snarls science worldwide. Science, vol. 367, p836.

World Health Organization (2019) MERS Situation Update. November 2019. WHO: Geneva.

Wrapp, D., Wang, N., Corbett, K. S., et al (2020) Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation. Science, vol. 367, p1,260–1,263.

Wu, F., Zhao, S., Yu, B., et al. (2020) A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Nature, vol. 579, p265-9.

Zhou, P., Yang, X-L., Xian-Guang Wang, X-G., et al. (2020) A pneumonia outbreak associated with a new coronavirus of probable bat origin. Nature, vol. 579, p270-3.

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Jonathan Cowie is an environmental scientist who has had a career in science communication, including science publishing and policy, working primarily for UK learned biological societies.  Then in the early 2000s he turned to focus on climate change concerns: principally the Earth system, biological and human ecological impacts.  Among other things, including writing climate change university textbooks, his 2009 online essay, 'Can we beat the climate crunch', has been somewhat prescient as demonstrated from subsequent work by others.  Since the mid-2010s he has shifted his attention to the Earth system and the co-evolution of life and planet.  Of passing relevance to this briefing, in his mid-1970s, pre-college gap period he spent 18 months working at NIRD as a junior technician.  The former National Institute for Research into Dairying was not hidden in a remote area in Nevada, concealed in the sub-basements of a legitimate Department of Agriculture research station, but was a genuine MAFF Research Institute attached to the University of Reading.  His work there included that in its SPF and Germ Free Units. One of the outputs of this was providing Specific Pathogen Free eggs for children in isolation undergoing bone marrow transplantation.  He has therefore kind of done the Andromeda Strain thing.

 

Advance posted 20.3.16 (A fortnight before UK lockdown)
Scheduled to post 20.4.20 with SF² Concatenation, vol. 30 (3) edition.

 

 

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