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Our Coronavirus Predicament Isn’t All That New

Mark Buchanan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The great “flu” pandemic of 1889 started in Russia, infecting more than half the inhabitants of Saint Petersburg, then spread rapidly through Europe. Its victims included Prince Albert Victor, the grandson of Queen Victoria. Americans felt safe for a few months — until the first infections appeared in New York, and rail travel quickly spread it to other cities across the U.S. The pandemic ultimately killed 1 million people globally; it killed 13,000 in the U.S., which then had a population of 60 million.

I put quotes around “flu” because that's what, until 15 years ago, most historians and epidemiologists believed it was. Since then, research has uncovered evidence that the 1889 pandemic may actually have been caused by a coronavirus much like today's SARS-CoV-2 — one that leapt to humans from cows rather than bats. Indeed, observers of the 1889 pandemic noted a higher frequency of effects on the central nervous system than was typical for other influenza outbreaks. Such symptoms have been a marked feature of the current pandemic, with many people losing their sense of taste or smell, or suffering from brain swelling or immune-system attacks on nerve tissues.

If today’s pandemic is a virtual replay of the past, then the 1889 pandemic may predict our future. After further yearly outbreaks through 1895, humans acquired partial immunity to the virus. It turned from a killer into simply one virus among many, mostly causing the common cold. It's still with us today.

Much of what happened in 1889 sounds eerily familiar. From a seemingly safe distance, U.S. newspapers reported on the rising death toll as the virus swept across Europe. After it reached the U.S., prominent public figures claimed it was nothing to worry about, just the common cold. Some health authorities suggested quinine as a treatment, leading medical specialists to warn about the dangers of self-medication. Those with “underlying conditions” such as heart disease or kidney problems were most at risk, and many cases of infection led rapidly to pneumonia.

Influenza was widely accepted as the cause of the 1889 pandemic for more than a century. But after the SARS epidemic in 1995 — caused by a coronavirus named SARS-CoV — biologists used modern gene-sequencing methods to begin comparing viruses infecting humans and other animals. The genetic perspective led to a very different hypothesis about the origin of the 1889 pandemic.

In 2005, Belgian biologist Leen Vijgen was studying coronaviruses as a Ph.D. student. She and her colleagues found a very close genetic match between one human coronavirus — called OC43, and a frequent cause of the common cold — and another coronavirus that infects cows but not people. The similarity suggested that these two viruses may well have both descended from a common ancestor, as two branches of a family tree.

The researchers also estimated how long ago this common ancestor might have existed, based on calculations of the rate of mutations, which account for their small genetic differences today. They found that their most recent common ancestor probably existed around 1890, when that virus jumped from one species to another. It could have been the cow virus jumping into a human, or vice versa. Vijgen and her colleagues argued that the former is more likely given other details of the genetics of human and bovine coronaviruses, as well as other closely related viruses.

There's no smoking gun; the evidence is circumstantial. We may never know for sure, but our current predicament may be less unique than we tend to believe. If we don't find a vaccine, this coronavirus, like others before it, will ultimately infect most everyone, become less deadly as time goes on, and end up as a circulating nuisance causing seasonal colds.

Yet delaying its spread is still important. That delay will save lives as doctors gradually discover better ways to keep those who are infected alive. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."

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