Coronavirus: What's the Best Case, What's the Worst Case?
By: Ryan Lafferty
2020 has certainly been a hectic, unpredictable year, filled with mayhem and chaos and with confusion and havoc. From rumors of a third world war in early January when tensions between the United State and Iran flared, to the tragic passing of a basketball legend, Kobe Bryant later that month, to the outbreak of a global pandemic that has caused contemporary society and its normal functions to come to a screeching halt, this year has been thoroughly and unequivocally characterized by uncertainty and turmoil. In particular, as we grapple with the outbreak of the coronavirus, many are unclear as to what the future may hold in store. Just a handful of weeks ago we were all living our normal lives, attending school on a daily basis, and going about our day-to-day affairs with little-to-no hesitation. But now, social distancing, restrictions on public gatherings, and the urgent warnings of public health officials have driven most of us into a life of isolation, and deprived us of the ability to live our lives as we may otherwise have. Many of us are likely wondering how long this life of seclusion will last: while Governor Lamont has proclaimed that schools are to be closed until late April, the dire predictions of national and regional public health organizations suggest that “distance learning” and “social distancing” may be with us for longer than we may have previously imagined. But, just how bad can the situation get?
The “best-case” trajectory projected by scientists certainly inspires optimism. Many scientists believe that as the virus continues to spread, natural biological factors will reduce the lethality of the virus; viruses with higher mortality rates, and viruses with more severe effects on human health, are actually less likely to spread, because as the severity and gravity of a disease increases, so too does the likelihood that those afflicted by the disease come into contact with fewer people – or in other words, when infectious diseases make people extremely sick, as can be the case with severe cases of COVID-19, those people are more likely to remain home and less likely to come in contact with members of the general population, and therefore, the transmission of the virus falls – that’s why, in general, the number of people that get the common cold will nearly always be higher than the number of people that catch the flu. Many scientists hope that natural, selective evolutionary forces will cause the coronavirus to naturally fade. Indeed, according to Dr. Charles Prober of the Stanford Medical School, the “two other lethal coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, both petered out, and that is possible here.” His hope “is that COVID-19 will not survive.”
In addition, many public health officials believe that potential developments in medical technology could advance our ability to treat the most severe cases of COVID-19, and therefore, lower the lethality of the virus. Initial testing has indicated that remdesivir, a drug initially developed to combat the Ebola epidemic in 2014, chloroquine, an anti-malaria medication, and antiretroviral drugs, including those intended to boost the immune system to fight H.I.V., could all be effective at treating the coronavirus. As research and investigation into the virus increases, so too does the likelihood that our ability to combat the virus and its effects on the immune system will improve.
Moreover, there is moderate hope that the virus may lose efficacy as the climate warms. Of the four variations of the common cold – which is, itself, a type of coronavirus – two of them are seasonal in nature – in other words, they subside in times of warmth and surge when the climate cools. SARS and MERS, two other historical manifestations of coronavirus, did not exhibit any seasonal tendencies. Nonetheless, there is hope – although not yet substantiated by testing or research – that as the climate warms in the summer months, the virus will fade, and its effects will be tempered.
However, many scientists warn that we should only be so optimistic about the potential for the “best-case” scenario. A model developed by Dr. Neil Ferguson, a British epidemiologist widely known for his ability to accurately predict and model the effects of diseases, has estimated that up to 2.2 million people will die of the coronavirus in the United States by the end of 2020. Other estimates from universities and public health organizations predict the potential for devastating impacts upon the American healthcare industry and the U.S. economy.
Many scientists fear that few countries will be able to slow the spread of the virus long enough such that a vaccine can be developed. Moreover, countries like Italy, Spain, and Venezuela demonstrate that inefficient and ineffective government responses to the crisis can lead to staggering death totals and crushing impacts on the economy. Indeed, the U.S. economy is already feeling the violent and shocking repercussions of the epidemic: the chair of the Federal Reserve has publicly estimated that unemployment might hit 30% in the height of the crisis. Millions have already filed for unemployment benefits; fortunately, Congress' recent passage of a $2 trillion spending bill will provide billions of dollars of cash to American families to help them in these times of woe and struggle.
Ultimately, the true magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic will only become clearer as time goes by. While there is much to fear, though, there is reason for optimism. As the best minds in contemporary science seek to develop treatments and vaccines for the virus, and as governments around the world ramp up testing capacities and bolster healthcare abilities of hospitals, the world can handle the pandemic.