Given the continued spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, we urgently reached out to John Barry, author of the award-winning New York Times best-seller The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.
Two years ago, we interviewed John about the expected implications should a pandemic of similar scale break out in today world. Little did we realize at the time how quickly his insights would prove relevant.
John was the only non-scientist to serve on the US government’s Infectious Disease Board of Experts and has served on advisory boards for MIT’s Center for Engineering System Fundamentals and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He has consulted on influenza preparedness and response to national security entities, the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses, state governments, and the private sector.
John remains quite concerned at how the world’s readiness for a pandemic is woefully lacking, exacerbated by the hyper-connectedness of our modern society (i.e., the ease and speed with with people can travel):
An often-overlooked part of the damage a virulent pandemic can do is its impact on supply chains and the economy.
If you’ve got 20 to 30% of your air traffic controllers sick at the same time, what’s that going to do to your economy?
Most of the power plants in the United States are still coal powered. They get their coal, most of them, from Wyoming. You see these enormous trains – that’s a highly skilled position, the engineers who move those trains which are a mile and a half long. Suppose they’re out. You’re not going to have power in many of the power plants.
These are things that we don’t automatically think of as relating to a pandemic. Even a mild one that makes a lot of people sick without killing them will wreak an economic impact.
In terms of the health care system, practically all of the antibiotics are imported. If you interrupt those supply chains then you start getting people dying from diseases that are unrelated to influenza that they would otherwise survive. We had a small example of that with saline solutions bags which were produced in Puerto Rico. Because of the hurricane, Puerto Rico was no longer producing them; so we had tremendous shortages in those bages after the hurricane. Other suppliers worldwide have picked up the slack, so that’s not a problem today.
But in a pandemic, you’re going to have supply chain issues like that simultaneously all over the world. So you’re not going to be able to call on any reserve, anywhere, because everybody’s going to be in the same situation whether you talk about hypodermic needles or plastic gloves — any of that stuff. The supply chain issues in a moderate pandemic are a real problem. If you’ve got a severe pandemic, the hospitals can’t cope. There are many fewer hospital beds per capita than there used to be because everything has gotten more efficient. In this past year’s bad influenza season, many, many hospitals around the country were so overwhelmed they all but closed their emergency rooms and weren’t talking any more patients for any reason.
There’s just no slack in the system. What efficiency does is eliminate as much as possible what’s considered waste, but that waste is slack. And when you have a surge in something, you need that slack to take care of the surge. If I were grading generously I would give us a D in terms of overall preparedness. If we had a universal influenza vaccine, maybe we’d be relatively okay, but we don’t.
And while good data is scarce in these early days, what we do know so far about the coronavirus does not encourage him. If the virus is indeed as contagious as suspected, he sees no hope of containing it before it becomes widespread:
Understanding the incubation period is very, very important.
The critical question is: Can you infect someone else when you’ve been infected but don’t have any symptoms?
The Chinese have made statements that they think that’s the case. If that’s in fact true, then there’s no chance of controlling this.
Exacerbating things, when facing an influenza pandemic, you have to sustain anything that you’re doing to be successfully preventive. And that’s extremely difficult for a public health official to get the public to do; sustaining the right behavior.
Unless you get in the habit of washing your hands all the time — and do it constantly, three, four, five days after you start doing it — you’re going to get tired of it. But that kind of behaviour has to be sustained to be effective.
I guess I’m a pessimist when it comes to changing human behaviour, even something as simple as handwashing — and good luck trying to prevent people from touching their mouth or eyes.
Even the “good” masks, like N95 respirators, have to be fitted almost perfectly for them to be effective. And they’re uncomfortable.
So for those who get sick, just stay home. It’s that simple. That runs counter to American culture; you’re supposed to tough it out — you’re sick, you go into work. But in this case, that’s not useful. Employers should emphasize that to their employees: If you’re sick, stay home.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with John Barry (43m:34s).
Chris Martenson: Welcome, everyone, to this Featured Voices podcast of Peak Prosperity.com. I'm your host, Chris Martenson, and it is Monday, January 27, 2020.
This podcast we are going to explore the current coronavirus outbreak here in January 2020, first identified as a case that came out on December 8th, just barely a month and a half ago in 2019. I'm of the opinion that is a pandemic quality bug, and we need to look at, and look at it very closely. I'm also of the opinion that the US press has been doing a reasonably expectedly poor job of keeping people informed about this.
And you're really going to want to listen to this podcast because we're going to be talking again with John Barry who literally wrote the book on the Spanish flu. Okay, a book. But a really, really great one. In fact, it’s an award-winning New York Times best selling book called The Great Influenza: the Epoch Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. And let’s hope it remains the deadliest plague in history.
Now, as a I said, we first interviewed John Barry back in July of 2018 where he warned us then of the inevitability of a future pandemic. It was only a matter of time, he said. Well, it seems maybe that time has arrived. And so we're going to be talking with him again today to discover what he knows about this particular virus.
John Barry was the only non-scientist to serve on the US governments’ infectious disease board of experts. He served on advisory boards for MIT Center for Engineering System Fundamentals and The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He has consulted extensively on influenza preparedness and response to national security entities, the George W. Bush and Obama White Houses, state governments, and the private sector.
His verdict, back in 2018, was this: It was that the risk of a massively fatal worldwide pandemic, just like the 1918 Spanish flu, was remote but very real. And that any future pandemic would be heightened by the hyper-connectedness of our modern society. That is, the ease and speed of which people can travel around.
John, welcome back to the program.
John Barry: I'm not sure – considering the subject matter, I'm not sure it’s a pleasure. But…
Chris Martenson: Yeah. We're kind of sorry to have you back on, too. But here we are. And let’s start right at the beginning, John. I'm sure you’ve been glued to the news and emerging data, just as we have. What’s your take on this Wuhan coronavirus, which, I guess, goes by the technical name of 2019-NCOV, or NCOV. Does this have the characteristics of that pandemic you were warning us about?
John Barry: It certainly looks like a pandemic. You know, I don't know what it would take the World Health Organization to declare such an event, but, you know, it’s pretty close. I'm sure they’re thinking about it.
Chris Martenson: Well, they haven't declared it, but, you know, as we run down the checklist, I was looking at the WHOs own checklist as they take us through a pandemic table and..
John Barry: It’s pretty close. I mean, it actually probably fits all their criteria.
Chris Martenson: I think to get to phase five all we're missing is a sustained outbreak at the community level in a region other than China, I guess. That’s the step we're looking for, I would guess. But we have the cross-species jump. We have human to human transmission, multigenerational, meaning it’s hopped from human to human to human.
The things that are concerning us, and I’d love to get your take on this, is it appears to have a latency period, that is, people can be affected. It’s going through an incubation period, and it takes time – five to seven days before they get sick, just as a normal flu before you express symptoms – but it looks like they may be infective during that period of time. What’s your take on that?
John Barry: Well, the incubation period is very, very important. Flu is shorter than that. Flu can be as little as one day. And if you have a long incubation period, then you have a possibility of contact tracing and isolating individuals and so forth. If it’s a short incubation period, that’s impossible, as with influenza.
The question of whether you can infect someone else when you’ve been infected but don’t have any symptoms, I know the Chinese have made statements that they think that’s the case. I was talking to a friend of mine who is probably the premier worldwide expert on pandemics and a scientist and has been in touch with all sorts of folks worldwide, and he’s not convinced. He wants more data before he’s ready to say that. And that’s pretty important.
If that’s the case, then there's no possibility of containing this, I don’t think.
Chris Martenson: And let’s, before we go on to really dive in to this one, I would just like to – let’s take a tour back: the Spanish flu which your book was about. If you could, just take people through that story because I think there's some really instructive parallels.
So first, what similarities do you see, if any, between the Spanish flu and this new coronavirus?
John Barry: Well, I mean, let’s talk about what isn’t similar. And at this point, the case mortality is very unclear on this outbreak, and that’s pretty crucial. You know, also, just how many people are going to turn out to be susceptible, that’s not clear.
But as far as 1918, the virus, of course, comes from animals. All influenza viruses have a natural reservoir in birds. They go from birds to other mammals. It spread pretty – there's dispute over when it entered the human population. Some people think as early as 1915 or so. Some people think as late as a couple months before the pandemic erupted in the spring of 1918, although that was the first wave. And then there was a lethal second wave, and then there was a third wave. That was in the fall of 1918. Third wave came in the spring of 1919, which was lethal by any standard except the second wave.
In total, it killed between 50 and 100 million people. If you adjust for population, that would be equivalent to 225 to 450 million people today, most of them dying within 14 weeks. So at this point, the coronavirus, while certainly potentially quite serious, doesn’t look anything like that in terms of mortality.
So, again, one on hand, I take it very seriously. I think public health officials should take it very seriously, and they are, but it is not looking like the 1918 influenza pandemic. Fortunately.
Chris Martenson: Fortunately. Absolutely. But I want to talk then about those waves that came through. Were those due to the Spanish flu virus mutating and becoming more lethal as it progressed around?
John Barry: It’s not really clear. I mean, you know, there are a lot of disagreement over that. If you look at all the pandemics that we know about in any detail came in waves. That’s ’57, ’68, 2009, 1890, 1889 and 1890-91. And in the first wave, it was sort of hit or miss. There were a lot of cities that were entirely skipped. For example, Los Angeles didn’t record a single influenza death in the spring of 1918. There were other cities like Louisville where it was probably as bad or conceivably even worse than in the second wave.
So the virus was distributing itself. And the same could be said worldwide by just – use the Los Angeles and Louisville examples.
If the virus entered the population in 1915, you would think they would be much difference between spring and fall 1918 as to its ability to infect humans. If you think it entered the population much closer to the outbreak that was recognized, then you think maybe the virus was getting better at adapting to humans. It’s not clear.
I'm not a biologist, but my knowledge of the epidemiology makes me lean toward that latter point, that latter. The spring wave was also much less lethal. There certainly were deaths, and in Louisville it did look a lot like the fall. But in most places, it was not particularly virulent. You had medical journal articles by scientists saying that the symptoms all look like influenza, but it’s not lethal as ordinary seasonal influenza, therefore it probably is not influenza.
They were published in late June 1918 and, of course, a couple months later you had scientists saying well, this looks like influenza, but it’s so much more lethal than anything we're familiar with. It’s probably not influenza, maybe a new disease. It wasn’t a new disease; it was just a very, very virulent influenza virus.
Chris Martenson: Now, part of that virulence has to do with something called herd immunity. Can you explain why it is such a – number one on my pandemic checklist, and number one on the WHO checklist, of course, is: Is this a brand-new cross species jump? In this case, the new coronavirus, from what I’ve read – I haven’t seen the sequencing – it apparently has bat coronavirus and maybe some snake too. So it definitely was somehow crossing species.
And then it made the jump to humans. Can you connect that to herd immunity for us, please?
John Barry: Well, I mean, herd immunity, by definition, is when so many people or whatever it could be, a herd of animals with some of the pathogen – when so many people have been exposed to it and have developed natural immunity or have been vaccinated, that the pathogen cannot get a foothold.
That happens in measles, largely, and we have a very good – very good – vaccine against measles. And if people are vaccinated the disease doesn’t have a chance of entering the population and continuing to propagate. If you do not have – I mean, that’s another of the very, very, very important questions about this virus. Will people develop natural immunity and, along with that, can you make a good vaccine?
If in fact you can develop a natural immunity, chances are pretty likely that you’ll be able to make a good vaccine. But they have identified the sequence, as you’ve already talked about, and they are working on vaccines. So, we will see, and we will hope.
Chris Martenson: So John, how long would it take to develop a vaccine at scale? I assume there would be some you’d have to test a variety of them. You find one, it feels good. How long would it take to get that up and running? Is that a days, weeks, or months kind of a thing?
John Barry: Well, certainly months in the best case. You know, with this virus, I don’t really know. I'm much more familiar with what it takes with a pandemic influenza virus when in a best case you're talking about six to eight months. That’s when everything goes right. And then you can have enough – that includes the production of large quantities of vaccine.
But we have an infrastructure that’s set up for pandemic influenza vaccines. I'm not sure what kind of infrastructure is available for this. I imagine it could be adapted pretty quickly, but the exact timing I don't know.
Chris Martenson: And the idea being that we know how to grow the virus for the standard, say, avian flus, the HN series, but this coronavirus is new. Have we faced a coronavirus at this scale before?
John Barry: Well, excuse me, they are able to grow this in the laboratory. That’s pretty important. It’s not so much growing the avian influenza virus, although that can be a problem, particularly since sometimes you were growing viruses in eggs and they’re bird viruses, so they were grown eggs. You weren’t producing any – it’s more the factory type infrastructure that I was talking about in terms of producing large volumes of vaccine.
You're obviously very up on this yourself. You may know something I don’t. But my understanding is they are able to grow the virus. They don’t anticipate a problem there. The question is will the vaccine work. I don't know the answer to that.
Chris Martenson: Right. So there would be some testing. And then once we’ve got something that feels good we’d rush that out to production assuming…
John Barry: Right. And depending on how virulent this virus is, that would have a lot to do with how many steps they compress or maybe even skip. You know, if this turned into, and there is no sign that it is, so I don’t want to scare people, but if this did turn into a lethal virus, my guess is that the FDA would allow some skipping of steps, or at least skimming through them, let’s say, rapidly.
Normally, when you have a new drug that’s being produced for humans, then there's a very, very long testing process. Pandemic influenza vaccines can skip a lot of that because they’re considered basically improvements on existing technologies and vaccines that are well known. This would be different.
Chris Martenson: Again, because we haven’t faced a coronavirus before?
John Barry: Well, we have faced coronaviruses. We have, SARS was a coronavirus. MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome is a coronavirus. Both of them were pretty lethal with about 40 percent case mortality. However, they were able to be controlled. You know, the common cold – coronaviruses cause a lot of common colds. So, they’re not all lethal.
The difference between SARS and this seems to be – and MERS also – SARS, you were not really infectious until you were really sick. So you were not walking around going to supermarkets or in subway cars when you were infectious with SARS. Upwards of 90 percent of the transmission between people occurred at hospital settings, particularly with healthcare workers treating patients. And MERS is similar.
In this instance, it doesn’t seem to be the case.
Chris Martenson: I’d heard, as well, that SARS had super-spreaders, people who were really good at spreading it, and they accounted for a big chunk of the overall other infections that occurred. And this one seems to be more like, hmm, I don't know if they’re super spreaders here too, but it seems more like everybody’s pretty capable of spreading it. Which brings us to this concept of the R naught, the R-0.
John, I mean, I’ve seen things all over the place. It certainly looks north of 1. I’ve seen some papers that have tried to estimate at 2.5. I don’t have a good handle on this because I got to confess here: I don’t trust the Chinese statistics that are coming out. So, it’s very hard, I think, to model and R naught without having some solid actual data around how many people have been infected.
John Barry: My friend whom I was speaking with last night about this, actually, and who, as I said earlier, he’s one of the people everyone in the world turns to when something like this happens, told me, to the best of his knowledge, the R naught is between 2.5 and 3.5, which is very high.
Now, what that means is one person will infect between 2.5 and 3.5 people. To give you a sense of comparison, ordinary seasonal influenza, according to multiple studies, the median number for these multiple studies was 1.28. So this is roughly double that. And the 1918 pandemic, again, multiple studies the median figure was 1.8. So, this is well north of that.
However, this is what I talked about earlier, things like the incubation period and how it spreads are very, very important. SARS initially had an R naught around 3.0. But we’ve eradicated. That’s because an incubation period and the fact that isolation and so forth could work for SARS. And it wasn’t that easy to catch SARS. You needed pretty close contact. This case, this instance, it does not seem to require close contact.
I don’t know what the incubation period is. I know you said five to seven days. You may well be right. But I don't know what it is. If that is the case, that’s a good thing because that’s fairly long, much longer than influenza.
So the R naught is important, but it’s not everything.
Chris Martenson: John, why would a long incubation period make it better? I would have thought that would have made it worse.
John Barry: Because it gives you time to trace contacts and isolate them.
Chris Martenson: Alright. But…
John Barry: If the incubation period is one or two days, like influenza, or three days for that matter, but as early, as little as one day, you have no opportunity to contact someone, isolate them and prevent them from spreading the disease. The longer the – well, you can reason that out yourself as to why incubation period matters.
Chris Martenson: Well, it does. But I was taking kind of the other side of that which is if I go to flight tracker right now, I can see hundreds of planes coming from and to China.
John Barry: I got you. Yeah. Well, that’s true. I mean, it’s going to spread around the world, as it has already. But once that – this is why airport screening is not going to be useful. If someone is asymptomatic when they get off the plane, I don’t care how accurate those temperature things you shoot at the people’s forehead are.
I happen to go to Hong Kong during an outbreak when they were doing that stuff. And actually, someone else who’s an assistant secretary of HHS in charge for emergency preparedness made sure that no American airports did that because it was pointless for bird flu. It was not going to catch anything. First, those things aren’t necessarily accurate. And second, asymptomatic individual - you know, you develop the disease, incubation, all that stuff that you’re talking to me about.
But you're correct in the sense that a longer incubation period means it’s going to spread around the world. Absolutely right. But the upside of that is it does give you an opportunity, once people are identified, of tracing their contacts.
The killer is, if in fact it’s true, that they can spread the disease before they are symptomatic, before they realize they’re sick themselves, then there's no chance of controlling this. And we are going to have to get used to it.
Chris Martenson: And here’s where it gets a little tricky because I don’t quite know how to assess the statistics. But of the statistics I have, so far, it’s pointing to around a three percent case fatality rate. Honestly, I wouldn’t stake anything on that; could be higher; could be lower. I just don’t know.
John Barry: I mean, this is a good conversation we're having. I don’t know how good it is for your podcast, but I'm curious where you got that?
Chris Martenson: So that was coming out of China, and it’s looking at their official statistics at this point in time. And it’s backfitting. So, knowing that the cycle of this is about 15 to 17 days from first exposure to either death or recovery, factoring out the new cases, and then dividing into the actual number of people who died – and again, I don’t think we’ve got complete statistics – but of those numbers, gets you around three percent right now. And it’s very sloppy work, and we don’t know because, as you know, not until all is said and done can you divide proper numbers from each other.
But beyond that, we have lots of stories coming out of China that people were dying of pneumonia, being buried or cremated before any testing had been done. So, it could have been normal pneumonia, could have been totally unrelated, could have been related. We don’t know.
So I'm not real sure that we have good statistics yet at all, but that sort of where it was pointing to early on. And, of course, totally not hinging anything on that number at this point yet.
John Barry: Well, if you remember, in 2009 with H1N1, the initial numbers sounded scary, but we had no idea how many people were actually getting sick. We only had an idea of how many people were dying. And even it turned out that Mexico was overstating the number of dead from the disease.
The only study that I'm familiar with on this so far, but it may a few days out of date, was about 15 percent of hospitalized patients died, which is a little more than double influenza. So we have no idea how many people are actually sick, which is what you're getting at.
You know, there may be 50 times the number walking around who had been infected and cough once or sneeze once, and that’s the end of the disease, in which case that so-called three percent case mortality would drop precipitously. And let us hope that’s the case.
But as you say, we don’t know. And on something like that, the Chinese don’t know. They’re not the most trustworthy in terms of numbers. You're absolutely correct, but this is such a moving target. They did put somebody in charge a couple of days ago who’s pretty transparent and has a very good reputation. So, we’ll see.
Chris Martenson: Listen, I know that the number of infected are much higher than the official statistics, which as of this morning even was 2,070. I think it made it up to 2,800 on the last release. But even at 2,070, Wuhan is a city of 11 million people. There's about 49,000 hospital beds. I know that the Chinese…
John Barry: Five million people left before they closed.
Chris Martenson: Yes. That happened. But the Chinese were saying, oh, there's 2,000 cases identified, so far. But this had completely swamped their hospital system. I know they have a little bit of a culture towards rushing to the hospital when they have a first sniffle. But it still seemed like the system got overwhelmed. And you don’t do that with a seriousb complication rate of ten percent on 2,000 case. Two hundred hospital beds does not swamp a 49,000-bed hospital system.
So I'm pretty sure that the infection rate is – I got to be honest – I'm just wait – please. Don’t hold me to anything – ten times higher than the stated case? Because A, they didn’t have the ability to test because they had to ramp up their test kit ability. B, I'm not sure they could take tests in every case. C, as you mentioned, people got sick but never even went to the hospital or bounced off and didn’t go back and got better all on their own. So we still don’t know.
But based on what you’ve been reading and hearing so far and also, I trust what people do more than what they say. The Chinese government has taken extraordinary steps. They’ve asked all nonessential businesses to close in ShangHai b for about a week. That’s 24 million people there. They put a level I emergency on Beijing; no transport, ground transport, in or out. Those feel like the kinds of steps you take when you have to, not as a precaution . What do you think about that?
John Barry: Well, I agree with you. Now, that’s a short answer. Shortest answer I’ll probably ever give you.
Chris Martenson: So given that, I want to turn now and I want to ask: What should China be doing? Are they doing the right things in order to control a pandemic? You’ve already said the cat’s out of the bag. If it has the incubation period we think it has, forget about it. This thing’s going around the world.
So given that, what steps should any culture or country be taking in light of that?
John Barry: Educating the public as to what kind of personal measures they can take, which are chiefly hand washing for this disease and for most coronaviruses.
I'm hesitating because I was part of a group, early after bird flu surfaced, that our government started talking about what they call nonpharmaceutical interventions. What do you do when you don’t have drugs that work? Public health measures. And I was part of the initial group which made certain recommendations along those lines.
I think they are all you can do. But by the same token, I think their effectiveness will be pretty limited. And they involve staying away from crowds, social distancing, all the obvious stuff, and washing your hands.
You know, masks are not very useful, in my view. There's some people who think they are: I'm not one of them. If someone is sick, then a surgical mask on that person will be effective in protecting people around them. Not a hundred percent, but it will significantly help.
But if you're a healthy person walking around in a crowd, then it’s unlikely that a surgical mask is going to do you significant good.
What are called N 95, which are actually respirators, they’re useful. By the same token, they are very – they have to be fitted almost perfectly for them to be effective, and they’re uncomfortable.
In New Orleans after Katina, there was a study of professionals who went into houses where there was concerns about toxic-mold. And it turns out 60 percent of these professionals did not put the M95s on properly. So even N95s I have some questions about.
Again, the surgical masks I don’t think are useful. But they don’t do any harm. And other than that, hope for a vaccine.
Chris Martenson: But a great point though that the surgical mask does an excellent job if it’s on somebody who is sick. I want to reinforce this point for people. This coronavirus, as far as I understand it, spreads by droplets. It’s not airborne. It’s not little viruses wandering around with wings trying to find you. If somebody sneezes, coughs, they eject particles. If you could see these particles in a really bright beam of light, sunbeam, you know, you would see that they float around for a while, and then they drift, and they settle.
If you could prevent them from coming out and going out and drifting around and settling, that’d be great. So that’s what the surgical mask does for somebody who is sick. And everybody who thinks they’re sick or are sick I think is a – if this goes forward and turns into a worldwide travelling sort of thing and we’ve got to get used to it, it really will become important for people who are sick to never go out in public without wearing a mask as a point of courtesy and public health and just being a reasonable human being, I think.
John, does that make sense?
John Barry: Yes, it does. And the other thing is, incidentally, influenza is spread primarily by aerosols, which is the smaller virus floating around in the air. I mean, it’s also spread by larger droplets. But the virus itself, you know, aerosol transmission is certainly important in influenza.
The other thing is just stay home if you’re sick. It’s that simple. Which runs counter to, certainly in our culture, you're supposed to tough it out. You’re sick, you go into work. In this case, that is not useful. Employers should emphasize that to their employees. If you're sick, stay home.
Chris Martenson: Well, we’ve already seen the prophylactic closing of large gatherings. Some festivals and things have gotten closes. But as well, the state of Mongolia this morning completely closed its border with China. So that’s the first border closing I’ve heard of. And they also closed all their schools. Hong Kong has closed schools for two weeks.
So that’s another thing people should be aware of is one of the ways that you fight something like this is you basically limit large gatherings. And if that means you close schools and stop festivals and maybe even – I think China even close 70,000 movie theatres. So they’re just basically, as fast as they can, making sure that they are limiting large assemblages of people. Hard to do in a city anyway because that is a large assemblage of people. But I think that’s what people need to be aware of here is that those are the kinds of steps that do get taken as necessary steps, precautions here.
John Barry: Right. And school closings is a very common step and in a severe influenza outbreak that would be recommended. Kids tend to be so-called “super spreaders” largely because, partly because they’re young enough, they’re rubbing their nose and mucus is all over the place. But also, because, given their age, they haven’t been exposed to a lot of influenza, so they’re more susceptible than an adult who has probably seen quite a few influenza viruses.
There's actually a study that inoculating children against pneumonia cut pneumonia rates – and I'm talking about bacterial pneumonia – cut pneumonia rates in their grandparents in the 90 percent range. So that can be important. But it all depends, of course, on the disease and how it’s transmitted and so forth and so on.
And there are still a lot of unknowns with this coronavirus. You are obviously very well informed.
Chris Martenson: Thanks. I’ve just been reading like as much as I can. John, I have another question here about mutations and the risk of mutation and what might happen with that. So it sounds bad. You know, oh my gosh, the virus has mutated. They all, I guess, mutate to some extent.
But I guess my question is around are those mutations always unfavourable? Can they also be favourable? And if so, what’s the balance? Like do they tend to be favourable versus unfavourable, and how’s that factor into this?
John Barry: Well, they’re random, of course. The ones that are going to be more successful are going to be the ones that allow it to adapt to the human population since they are animal viruses. But that doesn’t necessarily mean lividity [PH] [00:35:21]. Obviously, if a virus kills it’s host it cannot propagate.
So, for example, a lot of the very dangerous bird flu viruses in birds don’t make the bird sick. Some are highly pathogenic. But a lot of them that would be dangerous to humans don’t make a bird sick at all because the virus coexists. Hopefully, that would be the case with pathogens that infect humans.
Again, a coronavirus is an RNA virus. All RNA viruses mutate like crazy. But measle is also an RNA virus. And one exposure gives you lifetime immunity often.
The reason is that the parts of the measles virus that are immunogenic can’t change or the virus can’t function. All other parts of thee virus change but that particular stuff, the RA of the virus, the part that the immune system happens to recognize, if that changes the virus won’t function.
And that’s actually why influenza vaccines have not been particularly successful because they target an area of the virus that can mutate without affecting the ability of the virus to function. There are new strategies out on influenza vaccines which will probably be successful. There's enough work done to make it look like it’s very likely they will succeed, which will target what is called conserved portions of the virus. And these are parts of the virus that cannot change, or the virus won’t work.
So the mutation rate for all these viruses is extraordinarily rapid. But you asked the right questions, the direction and so forth, whether it becomes worse or better. Random.
Chris Martenson: Thank you so much. That really added a lot to what I know. And this idea that obviously something that makes the virus more successful, that is it spreads more rapidly, that mutation will be favoured. But if that also at the same time made it less lethal that’d be great because it’s actually probably running around and acting like an immunizing agent rather than a lethal agent I guess, if I understood that correctly.
John Barry: You did.
Chris Martenson: Excellent. So what is it that you think people should be doing, if anything, at this point in time? Should they be just alert and watching this? Should they be – one of the things I’ve advised people is to begin good hygiene practices.
John, my background, I did a lot of cell biological work, and so I learned pretty early on as a grad student that if you touch something that’s not sterile, you’ve just contaminated weeks’ worth of work, potentially. So, I learned the habits of good sterile protocol.
But I got to honest, I touch my own face all the time. And so one of the things I’ve advised people is to begin at home just practicing what it means to have good sterile protocol. Which means don’t touch your face. I’ve read somewhere that people touch their face on average two thousand times a day. So, let’s see if we can just drop that to as close to zero as possible at home in the comfort and safety of it before you go out in public and say, well, you know what, Chris, when I go out in public that’s when I’ll be cautious and careful. I think good habits, you gotta start them early and practice them.
But beyond that, I don’t know what to tell people except wash your hands, and that seems to be one of the best things you can do. Especially if you’re in public and you touch a common escalator handrail, I would then at that point consider, especially in the airport, I would consider my hands to be as if they were covered with axle grease. I'm not going to do anything with them until I get into the bathroom and wash them good.
John Barry: Or a doorknob. Or pick up somebody else’s pencil. Anything. I guess I'm a pessimist when it comes to changing human behaviour, whether it’s as simple as handwashing – I think you can probably get people to wash their hands a lot more often. In terms of touching your face, good luck.
Going back to the 2009 pandemic that sort of wasn’t, I mean, technically it was – once I get into that because I have a lot to say about 2009. But the reason I bring it up that the Mexican government recommended wearing masks on public transit and gave them out for free at entrances to bus stops and so forth. And usage peaked at 67 percent, and four days later it was in the 20 percent range, 27 percent, something like that.
My point is that when you're facing something like an influenza pandemic, and I'm not sure about the coronavirus, but you have to sustain anything that you're doing. And that is extremely difficult for a public health official to get the public to do. Sustaining is.
Unless you get in the habit of washing your hands all the time, and do it constantly, three, four, five days after you start doing it, you're going to get tired of it. But that kind of behaviour has to be sustained for it to be effective.
Chris Martenson: Great point. And this last 2019 flu season was pretty bad by the numbers. I think the last numbers I saw were closing in on a million people hospitalized and some 80,000 deaths. It was pretty high worldwide.
John Barry: Not 2019. Wasn’t that 2018?
Chris Martenson: Yeah, that might have been.
John Barry: Actually, CDC, and I just looked at this this morning, has revised those numbers. They originally said 79,000 deaths. It’s now a little bit better than that at 61,000. That is a lot of people. That’s in the United States. And that’s seasonal influenza.
And that’s something that had we taken that disease seriously for decades I think we would probably have a universal vaccine by now. But research money did not go to influenza even though it was killing thousands of Americans a year.
If you go back to West Nile virus in 2000, West Nile was actually getting more money than influenza. In West Niles worst year it did not kill 300 Americans. And in influenza’s best year it killed at least 3,000 Americans. And yet, West Nile was getting more research dollars. Made no sense.
Then bird flu came along and scared everybody and influenza started to get attention.
Chris Martenson: I was bringing that up because I think we're still sort of launching into the typical flu season anyway, so we’ve got that. And it’s going to be easy for people to confuse catching what we call ordinary flu which you just pointed out is pretty dangerous all on its own. And, as yet, there may still be the possibility that we get this coronavirus coming through.
And I guess all we can do now is just watch and wait and get more data. I'm still troubled by the seemingly Draconian actions that the Chinese government is taking in terms of – I don't know if you’ve seen, but around Wubai – it’s a pretty big city, and they’ve just got dump trucks dumping sand, dirt, piles of rocks, logs, whatever they can to just block roads. It looks really sort of haphazard emergency. And the Chinese are fairly thoughtful people who are capable of big construction projects.
So just the nature of that made me question if they knew something that we didn’t. But other than that, I don’t have a lot of – it’s just trying to read the tea leaves here.
John Barry: Chinese social media suggests the Chinese population shares your concerns.
Chris Martenson: [Laughs] Yeah. Well, thank you so much for sharing your expertise here, and I hope we can touch base again. I hope we don’t need to, but if we do, I’d love to tap back in.
We’ve been talking with John Barry, author of The Great Influenza: The Epoch Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. John, is there any other book that you’ve got going on or any other thing you’d like people to know about?
John Barry: It’s not the only book that I’ve written. You can go to johnmbarry.com. I managed to cause some trouble in some other areas. In New Orleans, after – another book I had written on, actually, a Mississippi River flood in 1927 called Rising Tide, that ended up after Katrina – those people thought I knew something about floods. I ended up on the reform post Katrina levee board and managed to sue 97 oil companies to create a little bit of attention in Louisiana.
So, that’s kind of interesting. If anybody is interested in environmental stuff, you could go to my website, johnmbarry.com and check out some of that. And of course, I’ve written other books, as well.
Chris Martenson: Well, good. We’ll direct people to that, of course. And thank you so much for your time today and for writing the books. And I hope you’re well, and we’ll be in touch someday.
John Barry: Okay. You too. Thank you.
Chris Martenson: Thanks.
John Barry: Bye-bye.