Around this time Last year, Covid-19– the disease that has so far killed over 400,000 Americans and infected 25 million more – still seemed to be someone else’s problem. On the last day of 2019, The Chinese government had confirmed that dozens of patients in Wuhan City were being treated for a mysterious pneumonia-like illness. Ten days later, researchers working with health authorities released the genome of the virus that was making people sick.
It was the first story I wrote for WIRED about the coronavirus now known as SARS-CoV-2. In the first days of 2020, the scientific achievement of such rapid sequencing of the virus, combined with a commitment to sharing open data, was heralded as a victory for public health. This digital string of genetic code would allow researchers around the world to start testing to detect the virus, if it appears on the coasts of their country. But public health officials in the Western Hemisphere didn’t seem too worried about the possibility.
A week has passed. The number of cases in China has increased dramatically. And the virus started to appear in new places – first in Japan and Thailand, then in South Korea and United States. The World Health Organization has scheduled a meeting to decide whether or not the outbreak constitutes an international public health emergency. A year ago today, January 22, 2020, I wrote another story, asking public health experts to come up with my opinion on one question: how bad could this thing be?
At least in public, no one used the “p word” yet. Although scientists knew pandemics were a possibility, such as the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, it was more than a century since the appearance of a virus capable of infecting a third of the world population, and killing millions of people.
I spoke to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, on January 21, 2020. And at that point, he told me that coronaviruses just don’t pandemic potential. Only the flu, he thought, can truly go global. This is certainly what he had believed at the start of the Wuhan epidemic, even if at the time we spoke, he had doubts and he had just taken the step of saying the opposite to his colleagues at CIDRAP. “It is now clear that we will see global transmission of the virus in the next week to 10 days,” he wrote in an email to the centre’s management team the day before our interview. “In short, I’m sure this will be our next pandemic.”
I spoke to him again this week and he said he felt compelled to write this email because it went against what he told his team during the first half of January. “My initial concern eased a bit when we realized it was a coronavirus and not the flu,” Osterholm explains. At first, after the pathogen was identified, he assumed it would behave like the other coronaviruses he had worked on, like SARS and MERS. If you reduce it early on with testing, contact tracing, and isolating those who have been exposed, it should just go away. By 2003, SARS had spread outside of China, but not on a large scale, he reminded me. When it arrived in Toronto, for example, the virus had mainly spread among people in hospitals, and those who died were healthcare workers – it had not passed through the general population.
But then he began to hear stories from collaborators in Wuhan about families who had all contracted the virus despite having had no contact with someone who was visibly ill. Osterholm says he realized he had to spread before people developed symptoms. It would be a game changer. “Over a period of 10 days, I went through this whole boost of: ‘It’s a coronavirus, it’s okay’ state of mind: ‘It’s a very different type of coronavirus. This one is going to leave. ”