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April 02, 2020

Good News: This is the Last Viral Pandemic

Back in 2015 Bill Gates wrote in his blog:

“The world is simply not prepared to deal with a disease—an especially virulent flu, for example—that infects large numbers of people very quickly. Of all the things that could kill 10 million people or more, by far the most likely is an epidemic.”

He was right. This year, in an interview you may already have seen, Bill explains what we should have done and now can do to prevent another pandemic.

Even since 2015, medical and computing technology have advanced so far that, given a year or two, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again at an almost trivial price compared to what a pandemic itself costs. Since it is human nature to always arm for the last war, I’m confident that we the world will do what needs to be done to cancel at least viral pandemics. Doesn’t mean we won’t face other catastrophes, but we can put this threat behind us.

One reason that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates understands what must be done to fight human viruses is that computer viruses are very good models of the human pathogens they are named after. Even better, lessons learned in keeping computers safe can save human lives

Computer viruses

A computer virus captures your machine and forces it to send out replicas of itself to infect other machines.  A human virus forces your cells to make zillions of replicas of its nasty self; if it’s a respiratory virus, it forces you to cough and sneeze to infect other people. Gastrointestinal viruses cause you to spew liquids. Yuk.

Both human and computer viruses spread “virally” (of course), so long as each infected person or machine infects more than one other person or machine. Once the transmission rate goes below one, the infection dies out in the human and computer population.

For computer viruses we all run anti-virus software which detects known incoming viruses and blocks them before they can do damage. Since new viruses are created by evil hackers all the time, the software must be updated constantly with new detection methods for new viruses. This updating happens in the background and we don’t pay much attention to it. New viruses still claim some victims; but, once they are known, new detection and destruction algorithms are developed (sometimes automatically) and distributed before the virus can become epidemic.

Human viruses

Human viruses are made of genetic material (RNA or DNA). They each have a distinct fingerprint. The human immune system learns this fingerprint and builds a chemical template to not only recognize the virus but to neutralize it. The immune system doesn’t forget; it keeps the virus description filled away for future use. That’s why we have an immunity to most viruses assuming we survive them. Vaccination is effective against viruses because it teaches our immune system what to look for and how to disable it BEFORE the actual attack.

Each year we update our flu vaccine to keep up with continual mutation of the flu virus. Enough of us are vaccinated or have immunity because we’ve had a similar virus so that the annual flu “only” takes 290,000 to 600,000 lives/year according to the World Health Organization. Many people that an infected person comes in contact with are immune; and so the spread rate is kept low enough for our medical people and infrastructure to cope.

The virus which causes COVID-19 is called a “novel” coronavirus because no human has ever had It before. None of us has an immunity; there is no vaccine for it. When a community or family is first exposed, everyone is a potential steppingstone for the virus. Stopping the spread is extremely difficult before we have a good and speedy way to identify who is infected, before we have effective treatment, and before we have a vaccine.

We may have good detection for coronavirus in the next few weeks and good distribution of the detection kits shortly thereafter; that will slow the spread but not before a terrible price has been paid. With luck we may soon have medicines which are effective against it; but they do have to tested both for efficacy and possible side effects and then manufactured in large quantities. We won’t have a vaccine safe enough for mass distribution before the end of this year at the earliest.

Fast forward a few years and this doesn’t happen again

We can and will use the tremendous advances in gene science over the last decade to develop the super-computer powered ability to recognize even a novel virus within days if not hours of having a sample – just as we do with computer viruses.

For respiratory viruses there will be machines like breathalyzers readily available all over the world (perhaps they will even be used as breathalyzers) which can recognize specific genetic material. These are analogous to the virus detection software you already have on your computer. These breathalyzers will be updated constantly with the super-computer developed detected algorithms for each new virus emerging from the bat cave or wherever. Testing will be easy, cheap, and almost immediate. Contact tracing and selective quarantine can happen as fast as they are needed. Similarly, detection mechanisms for gastrointestinal pathogens may be built into smart toilets. Just fast detection will be an enormous step.

But, better yet, we will be able to able to use genetic recognition capability to fabricate vaccines which need minimal testing before being widely used. Machines to manufacture the vaccine will just download the pattern and we can have huge supplies almost immediately. Early detection will give us time to test the vaccines; we may pre-manufacture some when a new virus is detected just in case it becomes epidemic. It’s our own antibodies, again like preloaded antivirus software, which will fight off infection as soon as there is a vaccine to tell them what to look for.

It’s a little more of a stretch but I think we will similarly be able to do quick and safe fabrication of new pattern-based medicines to help those who do get infected.

BTW, annual flu deaths will also be vastly reduced with these same capabilities – assuming people do get vaccinated.

We don’t need to have another pandemic.

We do need to get through this one. Please stay safe and join me in thanking the heroes who are working while we self-isolate. One of the great pleasures after the pandemic will be figuring out how to reward them.

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