The contrast with the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, could not be greater. From the very start of the outbreak, scientists suspected a virus. Within two weeks, they had identified it as a coronavirus, sequenced its genome, and discovered that the most likely animal hosts were bats. This information, which was published by a Chinese team, was instantly shared across the scientific community, allowing research labs around the world to begin the long and complicated process of understanding the virus, and finding a vaccine and a cure. We may not have beaten the enemy yet, but we certainly know a great deal about him.

The Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 occurred in the pre-antibiotic era. Although antibiotics do not treat viruses, they do treat the secondary bacterial infections that sometimes follow. These secondary infections cause severe pneumonia, and were likely responsible for most of the deaths in 1918. Back then, there was little to offer. Physicians recommended quinine (not helpful), dry champagne (ditto, though more fun), and phenolphthalein (a cancer-causing laxative). During an earlier outbreak of influenza, in 1916, British military physicians had even tried bloodletting as they treated dying soldiers. When it failed, they suggested it had simply not been tried soon enough in the course of the disease. Patients survived in spite of their doctors.