The Atlantic: You will all now be slaves to the virus

Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

At the Atlantic, former FDA Director (and Pfizer board member) Scott Gottlieb has penned an alarming editorial about how the world must permanently change because of the arrival of the novel coronavirus. The title of the article sets the tone. “A Second Major Seasonal Virus Won’t Leave Us Any Choice.”

Gottlieb starts out on a surprisingly positive note, saying things about the long haul of the pandemic that we’ve quoted other medical experts saying here in the past. The pandemic “will eventually be over.” (Though he’s unclear as to how and when that demarcation line will be identified.) The Delta variant wave “may be the last significant surge.” He even gives a nod to the fact that the massive government shutdowns and restrictions imposed in our government’s response to the pandemic are “more than we can tolerate.” Further down in the article he even admits that we will soon have an antiviral drug capable of lessening the impact of the disease in much the same way that Tamiflu has made the seasonal flu more manageable. So with all of that good news coming our way, what’s the problem?

Gottlieb is taking a somewhat unique approach to the fearmongering that’s surrounded COVID from the beginning. He’s not arguing that COVID alone is too great of a monster for us to tackle, even if we’re unable to completely slay it. He’s saying even if we get the virus under control to the same level that we’ve managed with the seasonal flu, the combination of the flu and COVID hitting us together will be more than we can bear and society must be prepared to change permanently in response.

But while the other four coronaviruses typically cause little more than the common cold, SARS-CoV-2 is likely to remain a more serious threat even after this pandemic wanes, even after the virus becomes primarily a seasonal pathogen, even after drugs and vaccination limit the damage it does. The virus will become a persistent menace at least on par with the yearly flu—a threat that, though seemingly routine, strains health-care systems, businesses, and schools every winter. With SARS-CoV-2 mingling alongside influenza—and causing a comparable level of death and disease—the harm to public health and economic productivity will be too great for society to simply shrug off. The dual viral threat will compel better defenses. We won’t have a choice.

The biggest challenge in confronting the coronavirus’s continual threat will be adapting our work and leisure activities to turn an omnipresent virus into a manageable risk—and seeing whether enough Americans can reach a political consensus on the practical and cultural changes that this will require.

You can see where this message is heading already, I’m sure. “We won’t have a choice.” There will need to be “practical and cultural changes.” We will all need to be “adapting our work and leisure activities.”

Before proceeding, we should note that Gottlieb is currently pimping a new book he has coming out. It carries the charming title of, “Uncontrolled Spread: Why COVID-19 Crushed Us and How We Can Defeat the Next Pandemic.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like our country has been totally “crushed.” In fact, I think we’re winning this fight and did a pretty amazing job given the speed that it came upon us and the initial damage it caused.

Gottlieb speaks of many of these changes that will be required. Some include features such as more remote working and the elimination of conference rooms in office buildings. New ventilation systems with hospital-level filtration will need to be installed in schools and offices. And without talking about government mandates, the author predicts that the wearing of face masks in public every winter will simply become “an accepted part of life.”

All of this analysis and prognostication is based on the assumption that we would be okay if we just had the flu on the loose or only COVID. But both of them together at the same time is too much. And so the world will need to change in dramatic fashion.

I’m sorry, but I’m just not seeing it. We’ve been dealing with the flu for the entire time I’ve been on this earth. And many of us have been saying from the beginning that COVID could never be driven to extinction. It’s going to be with us forever and we’ll have to deal with it just like we deal with the flu. And we are rapidly getting to the point already where our medical technology is catching up. It will only get better. Eventually, everyone will either be vaccinated or they will catch the disease. And among the latter group, more than 99% will survive with few lasting effects and they will emerge with their own antibodies and some level of immunity.

Don’t get me wrong. If there are improvements in practices like ventilation systems, air filtration or telecommuting that prove to be both effective and affordable, I”m all for it. Every little bit helps. But attempting to put some mandatory cap on the number of viruses we can have floating around out there before we turn this world into a prison planet is impractical and irresponsible. We may not be able to fully slay this monster, but we also can’t allow it to scare us back into our caves. We’ll get it under control and change it from a dragon into more of an annual, annoying rat.