A Year Ago I Asked: How Bad Could Covid Get? Now We Know

Around this time last year, Covid-19—the disease that has so far killed more than 400,000 Americans and infected 25 million more—still seemed like someone else’s problem. On the last day of 2019, China’s government had confirmed that dozens of patients in the city of Wuhan were being treated for a mysterious pneumonia-like illness. Ten days later, researchers working with health authorities there published the genome of the virus that was making people sick.

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That was the first story I wrote for WIRED about the coronavirus now known as SARS-CoV-2. During the first days of 2020, the scientific accomplishment of so rapidly sequencing the virus, combined with a commitment to open data sharing, was heralded as a victory for public health. That digital string of genetic code would allow researchers around the world to start making tests to detect the virus, should it show up on their country’s shores. But public health officials in the Western hemisphere didn’t appear overly worried about that possibility.

A week went by. Case counts in China rose dramatically. And the virus started to show up in new places—first Japan and Thailand, then South Korea and the United States. The World Health Organization scheduled a meeting to decide whether or not the outbreak constituted an international public health emergency. One year ago today, on January 22, 2020, I wrote another story, asking public health experts to level with me on one question: Just how bad could this thing get?

Publicly, at least, no one was yet using the “p word.” Although scientists were aware that pandemics were a possibility, like the 2009 H1N1 swine flu, it had been more than a century since the emergence of a virus capable of infecting a third of the world’s 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 time, he told me that coronaviruses just don’t have pandemic potential. Only influenza, he thought, can really go global. That’s what he had certainly believed during the early days of the Wuhan outbreak, although by the time we spoke, he was having his doubts, and he’d just taken the step of telling his colleagues at CIDRAP otherwise. “It is clear now that we will see global transmission of the virus in the next week to 10 days,” he wrote in an email to the center’s leadership team the night before our interview. “In short, I’m certain this will be our next pandemic.”

I spoke to him again this week, and he said he had felt compelled to write that email because it went against what he’d been telling his team for the first half of January. “My initial concern had been alleviated quite a bit when we realized it was a coronavirus, and not influenza,” says Osterholm. At first, after the pathogen was identified, he assumed it would behave like other coronaviruses he’d worked on, like SARS and MERS. If you squish it early with testing, contact tracing, and isolating people who’ve been exposed, it should just go away. In 2003, SARS had spread outside of China, but not widely, he recalled to me. When it arrived in Toronto, for example, the virus had mostly spread among people at hospitals, and those who died had been health care workers—it had not passed through the general population.

But then he started to hear stories from collaborators in Wuhan about families there who had all contracted the virus despite not having had contact with anyone who was visibly sick. Osterholm says he realized it must be spreading before people developed symptoms. That would be a game-changer. “Over a 10-day period I went through this whole whiplash of: ‘It’s a coronavirus, it’s okay’ mindset to: ‘This is a very different kind of coronavirus. This one’s going to go.’”

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