In 1906, Edward Drummond Libbey and Florence Scott Libbey, founders of the Toledo Museum of Art, visited Egypt and saw one of the red-flags warning of today's pandemic of SARS-COVID-2.
Warning sign? Nonsense. Until last year, nobody suspected that a family of microbes, the corona viruses, were poised to trigger a pandemic. This one already has sickened at least 106 million people, killed at least 2.4 million, and devastated the global economy.
Ahhh. But that's not quite true. As museum goers know from those iconic Libbey photographs, with Mr. Libbey riding a camel, there was no warning in 1906. Years later camels provided us with a clear-cut warning that a new coronavirus-induced pandemic was not just possible, but likely. For camels were the source of COVID's predecessor, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). First reported in Saudi Arabia 2012, it spread to dozens of other countries. The mortality rate from this mutated corona virus was 75 percent. But it largely stayed away from the West. Only two confirmed cases were reported in the United States, for instance. Warning No. 1 ignored.
An earlier warning came in 2002, when a newly-emerged corona virus triggered Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which began spreading through China. It hit two dozen countries in North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. The mortality rate was 10 per cent. The spread among humans mysteriously stopped in 2004. Warning No. 2 ignored.
Since the Libbys Egyptian visit (the source, incidentally, of the ancient mummies exhibited at the museum - see KMT - The Modern Magazine of Ancient Egypt, 2000), plenty of other red flags about the coronaviruses have appeared. And not just from humans. In 2018, for example, the coronavirus responsible for African Swine Fever arrived in China. It since has killed almost half the world's hogs. It's now all the fashion to count the warnings, all ignored, about the inevitability of the COVID-19 pandemic. A publication called Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, for instance, last year counted 25 recent warning signals of the pandemic. Recently the Wall Street Journal is telling us experts thing COVID-19 viruses are with us forever. Now some "what-iffing."
What if the United States' biomedical research colossus -- the National Institute of Health (NIH) -- had a single component devoted to viruses, say 20 years ago? Despite their huge toll on society, most research on viruses gets funded through an NIH component called the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). That situation that has prevailed since 1955, when the U.S. Congress established NIAID to replace the National Microbiological Institute.
Allergy. Infectious diseases. Those two categories of disease are a mismatch. They got lobbed together out of political expediency. There were lobbies for separate institutes for both diseases. As a political compromise, the two got combined into one institute. But they don't go together. Allergy is not, so far as has been proven, an infectious disease. It is a disorder of the immune system. Infectious diseases are not an allergy, although the body battles them with immune responses. To make matters worse, viruses became the needle in the haystack of other infectious diseases, such as those caused by bacteria and fungi. As a consequence, they have had little visibility on the marquee of the government’s biomedical research establishment.
What if a decade or so ago, the NIH had a separate, distinct, high-profile National Virus Institute (NVI). Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D. OH) introduced a congressional resolution introduced last week, urging just such a step now. NVI would consolidate all existing federally funded research, scattered among several agencies in addition to NIH. It would give viruses and their threat to human, crop and animal health and the higher profile they so richly deserve. NVI likely would get increased funding to reflect the human and economic damage from COVID.
If NVI had existed, would we now be in the second year SARS-COVID-2 of perhaps the greatest human and economic disaster since the Great Depression. Would 2.4 million people still be living? Would schools, restaurants, bars, movie theaters, house of worship, businesses -- everything be normal? Would there be effective treatments for viral infections, for the dangerous ones like Covid and the less so, like the common cold? Would a universal vaccine for multiple viruses have been on the shelf, approved for use, waiting for deployment? Would a global surveillance system have identified the threat of COVID-19 and stopped the pandemic in its tracks?
These "ifs" do not fall into the genre of unanswerable questions, like when did time begin and did math always exist and we just discovered it. The answers are straightforward. With a high-profile federal focus on viruses, there at least would be a better chance, a much better chance, of answering "yes."
Douglas C. Neckers is McMaster Distinguished Research Professor (emeritus) and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. His writings appear regularly at 3dscienceblog.com