COVID-19 vs H1N1, Anyone?

An hour before I woke up this morning, the news flashed on my phone with the headlines “Worldwide deaths from the coronavirus hit 100,000”. Over 1.69 million in over 200 countries have been infected in just 92 days since the SARS-CoV-2 was discovered. The number of diagnosed cases in the US exceeds those of the next top three combined – Italy, Spain and Germany. The US tally stands at 502,513 with 18,679 fatalities, their first reported case was 81 days ago, on January 19. The IMF warned that the global economy is headed for the worst recession since the Great Depression. I remember how bad the 2008 Great Recession was, and this is going to be worse? Many nations have been in some form of lockdown for several weeks. Mostly, this has involved the total freeze on non-essential services but we begin to see the push to loosen the restrictions on key businesses and industries. The WHO warned that a premature lifting of restrictions could “lead to a deadly resurgence”. But, Spain has started to relax their movement control, and Italy is clamouring for the same. Malaysia just extended their MCO by a further two weeks, albeit selected sectors can phase in their re-openings. India and Indonesia with a combined population that is the biggest in the world went into some form of lockdown just a few days ago – testing kits are in limited supply, and we can only wonder how bad the true number of cases and deaths are. Both Japan and Singapore have seen a resurgence recently and have implemented a “circuit breaker” to stop the second wave. Britain is still in lockdown with a record daily total deaths of 980 overnight. In Melbourne, there was a doubling of infections amongst healthcare workers this week. All over the world there have been massive numbers of frontline workers infected and many thousands of doctors and nurses have died. The sharemarket plummeted to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Trillions of government subsidies are being distributed to prop up businesses and millions of people who have lost their pay cheques. Whilst much of the world has been at a standstill, Mother Earth has begun to repair our environment’s eco-systems.

It was on December 1 2019 that a patient showed symptoms of a novel coronavirus in Hubei Province. China reported a pneumonia of unknown cause to the WHO Country Office in China on December 31 2019, confirming 27 cases. On January 2, there were 41 cases. Many suspected SARS or MERS. On January 4, the head of US CDC was personally briefed about the pneumonia outbreak by the head of China CDC. On January 8, China confirmed the existence of a new coronavirus. The five weeks it took China to determine this was a new virus has been used as the reason to accuse China’s communist party of a cover-up. In the ensuing months, apart from a handful of nations, the majority of countries have fared very badly in their failed attempts to curb the spread of COVID-19. When questioned about their unpreparedness and slowness to plan and execute given the many weeks of news coming out of China, the common response from authorities was that no one expected the severity and spread of the disease. So, it was a “cover-up” by the Chinese which justifies their ignorance? The number of cases in China on January 9 was 59 with the first death, that of a 61 year-old man. A day before Wuhan, a city of 11 million went into lockdown on January 23 with confirmed cases at 495, China launched a database to release worldwide the coronovirus genome and information on variation analysis. The speed at which they share this vital information gave the rest of the world precious time to develop their own testing kits and hopefully discover the vaccine sooner. That China took only 15 days to go into lockdown once they determined it was a new virus deserves applause and perhaps the world’s appreciation. Instead, some in the West have taken legal steps to seek Chinese compensation. On January 30, the WHO declared the outbreak was one of international concern. It was announced as a pandemic on March 12, with a total of 125,260 confirmed cases and 4,613 deaths. In the connected world that we live in, it would be uncommon to find anyone who is not aware of the COVID-19 pandemic. There is hardly anyone who has not been affected by it – the fear, the hoarding of supplies, the loss of employment, the incessant news of new cases and deaths, the lockdown, the need to wash our hands, to wear masks, the boredom without our favourite sports, concerts or ballets, the withdrawal symptoms from deprivation of our addictions be it from football, drugs, restaurants, loved ones.

But, we had a similar pandemic just ten years ago. It was declared by the WHO on June 11 2009. One that infected maybe over a billion people, and killed many hundreds of thousands more than COVID-19 has to-date. The WHO announced the end of H1N1/09 influenza pandemic on August 11 2010. Who heard the WHO declare it? Who even knew about its existence before its end was announced? Who feared it? Did anyone rush out to the shops and empty the shelves of toilet rolls, anti-bacterial wipes, hand wash, flour, pasta, rice and long life milk? Were many amongst us scared or distressed by the daily news? Were we told by our governments to remain in our homes for weeks? Did anyone lose their jobs? Were we introduced to the term social-distancing? Did we know of anyone being forced back to their home countries? Were we deprived of air travel and did anyone forfeit their exotic cruise holiday? Were there mass burials like what we are witnessing in the US? The US CDC reported the first human infection on April 15 of 2009 in California. By June 25, the US CDC estimated they had over a million cases, i.e. in 71 days, whereas COVID-19 infected 473,000 Americans in 82 days. Today’s higher R naught rate is a contradiction that requires proper analysis. The H1N1/09 was a zoonotic disease, it came from pigs. According to Wikipedia, “Some studies estimated that 11 to 21 percent of the global population at the time—or around 700 million to 1.4 billion people (of a total 6.8 billion)—contracted the illness.” Let us ponder that for a little longer. That was a hugely terrifying infection rate in a pandemic that lasted for 14 months yet it seemed to have spread all over the world silently and without much commotion. COVID-19 has infected how many so far? 1.6 million, with 100,000 dead. How many deaths from H1N1/09, I asked? According to The Lancet in September 2012, it was estimated 151,700 – 575,400 died worldwide. COVID-19 may very well be as deadly, if not more deadly. The transmission method is the same – they spread from person to person via respiratory droplets. Infection can also occur from touching our faces with contaminated hands. The transmission rate for H1N1/09 was 1.46. COVID-19’s R naught is around 2 to 2.6, but it may drop over time as measures taken to slow the spread become effective. Both spread rapidly across the world; both deadly and knew no borders. There was discrimination along racial or religious lines only because religious leaders continued to ignore health advice from authorities and practised mass sermons, and the virus continues to discriminate against the poor as we see higher fatalities from the impoverished ones with underlying illnesses. 2020 will surely be written in history books as the year ‘the-once-in-a-century’ killer virus brought the world into lockdown. Yet, I cannot understand why the world was calm a decade ago and most were oblivious of the deaths and misery the 2009 pandemic caused. Why are we better informed today? Why are we being locked down or aggressively tracked this time, and why have borders closed? Why have share markets been pummelled this time when in 2009, the Dow was its lowest on March 9 (three months before the pandemic was declared) and peaked on December 28 when the cold winter should have been most severe with fatalities? According to the BBC, the most talked about problem in 2010 was corruption, not the pandemic! The H1N1/2009 pandemic did not even rate a mention in any media review of the year 2010. For an American review of top 10 world events, see Australia’s ABC 2010 review also made no mention of the pandemic. It was as if it never happened. Many reviews rated the Winter Olympics, the Icelandic volcano, Wikileaks and the Haiti earthquake as major events in 2010 worth remembering. Why did a pandemic that infected so many hundreds of millions and killed hundreds of thousands not be an event that is ranked as one of the biggest stories of 2010? Is it because it was so ineptly handled by the US authorities that it was covered up? How can it be that so many deaths were silenced in 2010? Did the US CDC have blood on their hands? Today, when we have Artificial Intelligence and biotechnological advancements being achieved in leaps and bounds, we are informed the vaccine for COVID-19 will still take about 12-18 months to produce. Yet, three billion doses of the vaccine for H1N1/09 were produced, with delivery in November 2009, a mere five months after the announcement of the pandemic. The development of a new vaccine requires quite lengthy human trials, and in this case, once the new vaccine was approved, the time to scale-up production was achieved in just a few weeks. How was that even possible?

Who Knows It’s A Zoonosis?

In the wee hours of this morning, The Mrs discovered something about me. I was stealthily returning to our bed but my Ninja-style silent movements failed for the first time. My clumsiness annoyed me when I carelessly kicked the castor wheel of the bed. I thought I only yelped in pain under my breath, but my stealth mode failed this time. “Where have you come back from?” She asked with that firm voice that often tells me I’ve done something wrong. “Err, I went to watch a football match downstairs” I whispered, as if afraid to wake her up. Her hearing has never been great; I was surprised she heard me. “Your team playing?” She asked. “Nah, match finished”. Only someone disinterested in sports would think sports fanatics would return to their beds midway during a match. “Who won? Your team?” It was five in the morning – I really didn’t think she cared. But she asked, and so I told her. “Yeah, Manchester United won”. “They are your team?” The Mrs pressed for more information. After being married to me for 39 years, she finally found out I have been a Man United fan since I was a little boy. I used to buy comics about English football – my favourite character was a phenomenon who could kick a ball so powerful like a cannon that the net would break each time he scored a goal. My heroes were Bobby Charlton and George Best. Last night, my team won 2-0 in their local derby against Man City in the Premier League. Last December, Man United won 1-2. Their first double win over their neighbours in a season since 2009-10. They have now gone ten games undefeated. A mini renaissance that will surely save their coach’s job. They won 2-0 and 1-2. The Mrs would never know to ask me why it is scored this way. Why not 2-0 and 2-1. She is simply not interested to know the home team’s score is reported first in the score line. “They won? Uh. Good.” That’s about as good as it gets when it comes to conversations about football with The Mrs. Rightly so, I should add. I am happy The Mrs leaves me alone when it comes to football. That is the one subject we do not have disagreements! Those who are disinterested in a particular topic and therefore ignorant about the matter should be quiet. They don’t even need to pretend to be interested. That is why people like Fox News’ host of The Five, Jesse Watters, should learn to be quiet in matters that he has no knowledge of. Last week, he was blatantly stoking anti-Chinese sentiments, guffawing and talking down at the “hungry” Chinese. He demanded an apology from China for the coronavirus COVID-19, pinning all the blame on the poor and “desperate” Chinese who, “failed by their communist government”, had to resort to eating “uncooked and unsafe” live bats and snakes. Watters is an ignorant bloke, yet he exudes supreme confidence from behind his desk as TV host. That makes him a loud empty drum, making all the wrong noises and drumming anti-Chinese support in the West. It seems Fox News use race and extremism to attract viewers. Last year, their right wing rhetoric attracted the highest ratings in their 23-year history, with nightly viewers of over 2.5 million. That makes Jesse Watters a dangerous man as he spews venom about China to his audience. Does he believe himself? Does he know his words are baseless and false? Is he really interested in the truth? Does he not undertake proper research in his topics before selling them to his audience? Or does he know them to be wrong to deliberately attract the target audience that they want with their propaganda? According to Nielsen ratings, Fox News viewers are 94% white people over 65. Those who are employed are mostly blue-collared and 83% are without a college education. No wonder they would give their time to Fox News. They do not know better.

But, who knows for sure COVID-19 is a zoonosis anyway? Earthlings have long domesticated animals for food. That is no crime. It is not about the hundreds of millions of animals we slaughter each year. It is not even about the land degradation and toxic wastes that damage the environment. The issue here is the cruelty we subject the animals to. But what is or should be criminal is the suffering animals destined for the dinner plate are subject to. ‘The live sheep export industry is unwilling and unable to reform, and must be prevented from inflicting further animal cruelty and damage to our international reputation and Australia’s farming future.” That was the damning statement from Australia’s RSPCA on April 22, 2018. Debeaking chickens and mulesing lambs are less horrendous compared with subjecting animals during their productive life to crammed spaces such as cages and crates on cement floors without windows or skylights. These animals stand on their own faeces until their legs rot; pregnant sows so fattened they cannot stand and milking cows with udders so grossly distended that their swollen and scarred teats leak pus from mastitis. In such factories the stench of urine is so strong their eyes burn; genetically modified animals, fed antibiotics and growth hormones to make them grow in unsanitary conditions, have become so over-sized their brittle bones break easily. Meat produced in such factories are laden with faecal bacteria. What we have today is antibiotic-resistant bacteria that threaten human health. In doing so, we actually bring about zoonoses – infectious diseases that pass to humans from other animal species via bacteria, viruses or parasites. Human history is littered with major well-known zoonoses such as the Black Death, a plague that wiped out 60% of Europeans in the 14th century and the Modern Plague which killed 10 million people in the late 19th century. The rat flea was very likely the cause of both plagues. TB or Bovine Tuberculosis is transmitted to humans through consumption of unpasteurised dairy products or direct contact with infected cattle. I know of many relatives who died of TB in the 20th century. It originated from Africa some 9,000 years ago. BSE, more commonly known as mad cow disease is a neurodegenerative disease which can spread to humans from cattle. It takes 4-5 years before symptoms appear after infection. By some stroke of luck, only 231 people have been reportedly infected with over 4.4 million cattle destroyed in the UK alone. It was the rise of agriculture some 11,000 years ago that enabled the evolution of pathogens to spread from domestic animals to humans. Large gatherings of humans with close proximity to animals gave us diseases such as diphtheria, influenza A, measles, mumps, pertussis, rotavirus, smallpox. The consumption of primates gave us hepatitis B and Ebola. There are four still from unknown sources – rubella, syphilis, tetanus, typhoid, and there is still debate about whether HIV/AIDS is a zoonosis. It was the pig that gave us the swine flu pandemic. The Americans discovered the outbreak in April 2009 outside San Diego but did little to contain it. It is estimated that by October 2010 when the pandemic was declared over, around 700 million to 1.4 billion people contracted the illness, with about 150,000–575,000 fatalities world-wide. In comparison, the SARS epidemic was much more alarming having its origins in Foshan, China. SARS coronavirus (SARS-CoV), a virus identified in 2003, is thought to be an animal virus from perhaps bats, that spread to other animals such as civet cats. From 2003-2004, there were 8,098 reported cases of SARS and 774 deaths. The other alarming outbreak was the bird flu or influenza A/H5N1 which was first isolated from a goose in China in 1996; it quickly spread to Hong Kong and the rest of the world. Some 700 cases were reported. The most horrendous in our history was the 1918 Avian H1N1 flu. Also known as the Spanish flu, it killed between 50 and 100 million people. Humans are under attack by another coronavirus today, named COVID-19. As yet, we do not know if it is a zoonosis. As worrying as it is, it pales into insignificance when we look at pathogens from the food we eat e.g. Salmonella bacteria in poultry, Campylobacter in raw milk, E. coli in under-cooked meat and raw fruits and vegetables, Taxoplasma parasites in pork, Listeria bacteria in deli meats and dairy products. According to the WHO, 600 million are sickened (48 million in the US) and 420,000 die from food poisoning every year. So, Jesse Watters, which country do you demand an apology from? Urghhling, it is the animals exacting their revenge on us. They want to have the last laugh and can you blame them?