August 25, 2023
In early February, 2020, I screen-shared a map of confirmed cases of a SARS-like viral infection over Asia. Big red dots over China; smaller dots over South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Vietnam. No red dots in the western hemisphere. “This might be something big that could affect us.” SARS-CoV-2. Covid. Soon, the word would become part of everyday vocabulary. Six weeks later, we pivoted to online learning, students stayed home after the spring break, I carried a canister of Lysol wipes with me everywhere.
Though it’s been in the medical news for weeks, mainstream media started reporting about the new strain, BA.2.86, nicknamed Pirola. It has 36 mutations from the XBB.1.5 variant which was dominant during the summer. The CDC has reported that Covid-related hospitalizations have climbed 14.3% over last week, and deaths have increased by 8.3%. Last night, Bruce, who works in a hospital, sent me a picture of a box of masks with the caption, “They’re back!”
Since its start, the WHO has reported almost 770 million confirmed cases and 6.96 million deaths (as of August 16). Almost 13.5 billion vaccine doses have been administered. A new vaccine should be available in September, though it’s unlikely it will protect us against BA.2.86 and certainly not against whatever mutation lurks next.
The medical science, governmental, and non-government responses have been rapid. That we can peer through electron microscope, sequence the DNA and RNA of viruses, and develop a combative vaccine so quickly… let’s just say science skeptics are idiots.
This is the second global health crisis in my lifetime. The first was HIV/AIDS which, not unsurprisingly, is still with us, though it has never been classified as pandemic, only epidemic. The WHO reports since the beginning of the epidemic (1981), 65.0–113.0 million people have been infected with HIV, 32.9–51.3 million have died, and 33.1–45.7 million were living with HIV in December 2022. Though there is no cure of HIV/AIDS, as there is none for Covid, we have ways to mitigate the spread, and antiretroviral drugs and vaccines to control viral load and severity of illness.
I thought about the responses between HIV/AIDS and Covid the other night when I rewatched the 1993 film And the Band Played On, based on Randy Shilts’s 1987 book about the medical response to HIV/AIDS in the early ’80s. The CDC epidemiologists at the time did not have government support to study HIV, but they forged ahead, blindly yet unfunded.
I can’t do the accurate math, but a quick glance at cases and deaths suggests HIV is more deadly than SARS-CoV-2. Someone asked in early 2021 which epidemic was worse, and I quickly said Covid. That’s probably because over a span of four weeks in December 2020, I knew seven people who died from Covid-related illnesses. From 1988 to 1994, I went to a funeral every other month or so. I can’t answer the question with any certainty now. But I do know the scientific community deserves our respect and the government’s funding.