Look at the role DNA sequencing of the coronavirus is already playing: we are already capable of minimizing the reproductive rate of the bug because we can, in a matter of hours and at moderate expense, tell whether a croupy person has coronavirus or seasonal flu. The cost of whole-genome sequencing was in the billions of dollars 20 years ago, and infinity dollars before that. Today, after a Moore’s Law-like march through orders of magnitude, you can get a genome done for under a grand. That implies that we are not likely to be 50 years away from affordable, on-the-spot viral assaying — of a sort that would have allowed China to extinguish coronavirus at the first cough.
I have spoken with people who instinctively envision a future of perpetual viral pandemic — new micro-horrors spilling out of Chinese bat caves and pangolin buttholes with ever-greater frequency until society becomes unrecognizable and distancing becomes semi-permanent. We have mass passenger air travel! And globalization! It’s inevitable! But nothing like Spanish flu ever happened again during a century of globalization overlapping with 70 years of bourgeois-accessible aviation.
And this doesn’t take into account that antiviral drugs are still barely ready for prime time, although the early hope that Gilead Sciences’ experimental remdesivir drug might work on COVID-19 is still alive. Our physiological defences against viral infections are, for now, very much like our ancestors’. Things might be different on that count in 20 years, too.