For decades the world has ignored pandemic predictions from the experts. Maybe the coronavirus will change that.
In the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, I couldn’t bear to read about our collective early missteps. Not only because the implicit rebuke felt futile—what was the point in knowing that the grim reality we were living could have been avoided?—but because, in my case, it also felt deeply personal. Each article I read about missing the warning signs of a devastating new virus reminded me that decades ago, scientists had been worrying about that very thing, and a few science journalists were writing about their alarm. I was one of them.
When I started researching this in 1990, the term “emerging viruses” had just been coined by a young virologist, Stephen Morse. He would become the main character in my book A Dancing Matrix, published three years later. I described him then as an assistant professor straight out of central casting: earnest, bespectacled, a man who lived life largely in the mind.
Morse and other scientists were identifying conditions—climate change, massive urbanization, the proximity of humans to farm or forest animals that were viral reservoirs—that could unleash microbes never before seen in humans and therefore unusually lethal. They were warning that, thanks to an increasingly global economy, the ease of international air travel, and the movement of refugees due to famines and wars, these killer pathogens could easily spread around the world. Sound familiar?
“The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is the virus.” I used that searing quote from Joshua Lederberg, a molecular biologist who won a Nobel Prize for his work on bacteria, in my book’s introduction. Back then I thought Lederberg might have been a bit melodramatic. Now his quote strikes me as terrifyingly prescient.
When the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 had not quite reached a thousand and New Yorkers like me were three days into our governor’s stay-at-home order, I phoned Morse to see how he was holding up. He teaches epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and is now in the age range of those most vulnerable to the worst ravages of the coronavirus. (I am too.) He and his wife were self-quarantining in their Manhattan apartment, just a few miles from mine.
“I’m discouraged, yes, to find we’re not better prepared after all this, and we’re still deep in denial,” Morse said. He went straight to a favorite quote, from management guru Peter Drucker, who once was asked, “What is the worst mistake you could make?” His answer, according to Morse: “To be prematurely right.”