What do zombies have to do with the Coronavirus? Let’s review: an infectious disease that is rapidly spreading, seemingly out of control, and our leaders and our government seems to not take prevention seriously until we’ve got a serious problem on our hands? Panicked crowds of people buying out stores? The best chance for survival and avoiding infection seems to be staying in isolation and keeping your distance from people? People start fights with others because their need for denial has broken their brains and they insist the virus isn’t dangerous? People insisting that it would be best for as many people as possible to be infected?
Coronavirus in 2020 sounds an awful lot like most of the zombie movies that I have ever repeatedly watched. George Romero tried to warn you. More than once.
Comic-Con is doing a bit of public service here, gathering the author of a seminal Zombie Apocalypse book and a number of scientists to show the parallels of what is happening in real life to our favorite subgenre of monsters. Remember that a central theme to many great zombie films is that human beings are just as dangerous as the zombies or the virus itself, if not more dangerous.
On the panel we have: Author Max Brooks (World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide, Devolution), biodefense experts Dr. Greg Koblentz (George Mason University), Dr. Gigi Gronvall (Johns Hopkins University), Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate (University of Nebraska Medical Center) and Dr. Jarod Hanson (USAMRIID and University of Maryland Medical Center) and moderator Justin Hurt.
Justin Hurt wisely took the time to go through a number of recent disease outbreaks, epidemics, and pandemics to show that diseases affect human beings and the world more frequently and more seriously than we might realize. He recounted the sobering statistics and finally did the same for Coronavirus (COVID-19) with Johns Hopkins Hospitals tally for July 24, 2020: over 10 million infected, 502,947 deaths with a case fatality rate of 4.9, worldwide and in the United States. That’s over 500 hundred thousand dead in seven months. Since people like to claim that the Coronavirus is no more serious than the flu, here are the totals for the entire H1N1 flu epidemic in 2009. H1N1 was considered both a novel virus influenza and considered a global pandemic.
From April 12, 2009 to April 10, 2010, CDC estimated there were 60.8 million cases (range: 43.3-89.3 million), 274,304 hospitalizations (range: 195,086-402,719), and 12,469 deaths (range: 8868-18,306) in the United States due to the (H1N1)pdm09 virus.
In comparison, we have 40 million additional cases of infection and 490,478 thousand more deaths in a little less than half of the same time period with our current pandemic of Coronavirus (COVID-19).
Justin Hurt’s first question was about what we have learned and how we can apply it to future outbreaks while still addressing economic and social concerns and he fielded it to Dr. Jarod Hanson of the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, which works with the Department of Defense and the University of Maryland, who is an epidemiologist, veterinary biologist, and public health consultant. He added that he would like the panelists to talk about their backgrounds, but Dr. Hanson immediately launched into his blunt answer without prelude:
“I think this it’s an interesting question for one, because I really question whether we’ve learned any lessons along the way. If you look back at all of these outbreaks, not only the ones Justin mentions, but we’ve had multiple animal disease outbreaks that have spanned the last 10 years; including coronaviruses that show up in swine in particular, but also many other species.
I really don’t think we’ve learned anything thus far and what we’ve learned with COVID specifically is that this is the ultimate group project gone bad. We can’t get people to stay home, we can’t get people to wear masks, so how do we expect to improve upon that when you really have nowhere to go but up in my opinion?
I mean, we’ve really failed, especially as a country in the US, failed on a scale unimaginable a few years ago. If you think about how quickly MERS and SARS, in particular, the first versions were stomped out in Asia and Saudi Arabia, compared to what we’re dealing with now.
I mean, we just clearly have screwed up things that we’ve never imagined as pandemic planners or public health planners that we would have screwed up before. We all assumed things would be successful, we all assumed there would be good government strategies, and really the question is; how did we screw up so badly as a collective and this isn’t just across the US, this is across the globe.
There were so many missteps along the way and there continued to be…Maybe this time we’ll learn, maybe, that it’s gonna cost us, just in the US, a trillion dollars to learn that we should plan for things in the future, how we shouldn’t assume that this won’t just happen to us, or that we will be able to just technologically leap ahead of this.”
There you have it. An epidemiologist for the US Army says that our efforts and those of most of the world have been a complete and total failure and that it’s going to cost us a trillion dollars, just in the US, to fix the damage.
Hanson also added this and I think it’s incredibly important to note, but I could have quoted his entire answer because it was all smart and on point.
“The other thing you have to try to take away from this is how little public health costs relative to the ultimate harm that can come out of it…”
The sad fact that is proving to be most important in this emergency is that spending a little in advance is better than waiting until the problem gets worse and you end up spending much more to fix everything. Problems worsen the longer that they are allowed to grow and that’s what is happening right now. Instead of taking pandemic modeling seriously, our President disbanded the NSC Pandemic Unit in 2018 and attempted to cut funding to the CDC to save money, even though Congress found other funds. In fact, what Dr. Hanson said has already come true because, after the disbanding of the NSC Pandemic team and the attempted cuts to the CDC, Trump was forced to appropriate 2.5 billion dollars in February 2020 to fight the Coronavirus that probably wouldn’t have been necessary if his administration hadn’t taken those actions to save money in the short term and actually heeded the warnings and advice of pandemic planners and public health experts and simply decided to wait for the virus to disappear.
Justin Hurt directed the next question at Dr. Gigi Gronvall of Johns Hopkins University, an immunologist who is also on the Threat Reduction Advisory Committee which provides the Secretary of Defense with advice on biosecurity. He asked, “What are we not learning from that, what are we not taking away from that that we should be able?”
“Thanks for having me here to answer what we should be doing for the next epidemic. Whether it’s a rabies-like virus that turns people into zombies or some other deadly pathogens. Every day is a biology news day and biological sciences are really the only way out of this kind of mess. So we need to support it and make sure it’s there when we need it.
The science has been the most helpful part of this. Within a couple of months, we had thousands of uploaded viral sequences. We had thousands of scientific papers and within four months, we had a hundred and sixty vaccine and therapy candidates in the pipeline, which is amazing. A lot of this is because of advances in science from SARS. We now don’t need to worry about getting virus samples to researchers. They can download the sequences and work from there. Scientists are more collaborative, they are sharing their information through preprints and that has been really successful overall.”
Additionally, she added this:
There’s no excuse for it taking so long for us to learn that Hydroxychloroquine was not a good drug for COVID-19, so we need to get better at taking advantage of the patient data that we can and doing randomized clinical trials a lot earlier in the process.
In case you were still wondering, no, Hydroxychloroquine is not an effective or safe drug to treat Coronavirus.
Another very important thing that Gronvall said was this in addition to adding that because of a lack of regulation by the FDA, people are getting test results related to Coronavirus-related antibodies that are expensive and not necessarily accurate.
“Something that we need to fix is science and whole security apparatus need to be [connected] at the highest levels of governing. It shouldn’t just be something that they are CC’d on or something that NIH does. It needs to be as important as nuclear weapons to the training of people who are governing our country and they need to know what it is, because of the impact that it’s had on our nation and the world. Finally, we need a bipartisan commission like the 9/11 Commission to figure out what we did wrong and how we could do things better.
The 9/11 Commission made recommendations that were about small things like communication and big things like changing the way the FBI went after terrorist threats. We need something similar to that. The tagline for the 9/11 Commission was that it happened because people had a failure of imagination. But we haven’t, that’s not the case here, because we’ve been imagining this kind of crisis again and again and we’ve seen it play out in different ways. This has been a failure to act.”
Hurt then asked Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate, who worked as an Aerosol Scientist at Johns Hopkins and currently with NBACC – National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center as a Senior Investigator – NBACC was created by the Department of Homeland Security and the University of Nebraska, what we are missing in the realm of pure science, not applications of the science, noting that her degree in Aerobiology.
This was her response:
“I think you’ll very often find that there are clusters of virologists who only understand the virology portion, but there is physics and chemistry and thermodynamics that’s going in disease transmission. I’m seeing a lot of the papers that are coming out now bringing in all of these different types of expertise to really try to understand what is contributing to person to person transmission from expulsion events with droplets and fluid dynamics. Trying to get to the mechanistic understanding of what really is contributing to these pathogens moving to from person to person.”
She also spoke about this important issue:
“One thing that I personally think it has to change from a community standpoint is that there’s so much mistrust of scientists, specifically in the US. I think getting to a point where we can make sure the next generation understands the science [involved]. That the whole point is to help save lives and to help people. We’re not here to take away people’s rights.”
Hurt then asked Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Director of the Master’s in Biodefense and Ph.D. in Biodefense at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, about policy and legal aspects and the Federal government. He decided to center instead on the lessons that we could learn from Zombie Apocalypse literature.
He urged us to expect the unexpected and the fact that we don’t necessarily have a great track record of predicting what the next threat is. He also pointed out that while we may be expecting to know exactly how the Coronavirus came into being and spread, but that, like “The Walking Dead” or World War Z, we may never truly know where the spillover from species to species occurred or where the virus outbreak truly began. He thinks it’s possible that it might have started much earlier in a different part of China. He brings up the human factor, that humans are as dangerous as zombies, at first in fear, ignorance, and disinformation and then competition for resources. Finally, he brings up the problem of the invisibility of the virus vs the visibility of zombies and their infection pattern and that we need to be more prepared for a less obviously visible threat.
Next up is Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide, World War Z, The Harlem Hellfighters graphic novel, and Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre (yes, he wrote a book about Sasquatch) and he has a lot of strong opinions. Hurt asks what he feels that we are missing and what kind of lessons we should be learning.
“What I’ve gathered in the decade of this work is the biggest threat to us as a nation is the gap between the American people and those who protect them. And we really see that with this [pandemic] because one of the reasons that this has been such a devastating plague in the United States. It’s a generational problem. If this had hit us 40 years ago, there would have been enough Americans still alive and in positions of authority who still remember the dark days of polio and whooping cough. Pre-vaccine days when viruses and bacteria used to kill or cripple a large portion of our population. I get my name Max from my grandpa Max who died of TB when he was 30 years old because it was before Penicillin. That’s all gone. The majority of Americans today, even the elderly, are post-World War II and don’t have the muscle memory, the gut terror of germs.
That’s why we are where we are today. Because you can understand something, but you don’t get it in your heart and in your soul, so what do we do about that? What do we do about the fact now that you have an army of very smart, very educated – sometimes it’s not the same thing – people who know what they’re dealing with, but don’t know how to communicate it to the power base.
I would quote the great Eddie Murphy who said it’s not worth a warm bucket of hamster vomit, if you can’t take this knowledge and don’t communicate it to your boss and by your boss, I mean the American voter and the American taxpayer. That’s where the power is.
Because you can’t do things like this. Right? A great book. I had to read this, look at that. Listen to this. [drops book] Hear that sound? That is the sound of failure. Because if you can’t take what’s in there and make the average American understand it? Then our leadership, our intelligence, our educated thinking class of people have failed.
And that’s the problem and that’s where the artist comes in. And that’s what we used to do. In World War II, Roosevelt and his government, they would huddle. How do we do this, how do we defeat Japan and we defeat Germany? How do we aid the Brits and the Soviets? How do we do this? And then they figured out a plan and then they said Hollywood? C’mere, yes, you too Walt Disney. Yes. I know how you feel. We have to go to war against Hitler. How do you do this, how do you take your movies, your cartoons, your radio shows, your books, your plays, how do you make America understand why we fight? And there that actually used to be a show Why We Fight.
So it’s all hands on deck in the mass communication department. We need to think of creative ways of distilling the essence of what all of you [scientists] understand. Make people like me understand why it’s worth it. Because we can do it. Even when we were all kids, we had Schoolhouse Rock. We can do that again. Here’s our plan…Between your army [scientists] and the army of the people of America is an army of storytellers.
They need to be brought on board. Because if we don’t do that, if we don’t bridge the gap, nothing that you do [scientists] will save us.
We used to have an overall strategy about how we prepare for a big crisis. And that trickled down to everything…You’ve seen this, especially in the post-cold war era, being dismantled on every single level. We need to get back to that notion of wholeness of national concept. Because you can’t jump in at the last minute, you know, the army is way ahead of this. I can tell you this from working in the Modern War Institute.
The army is furious over ditching the national nutrition standard. It can’t reverse 18 years of fat assault and sugar and Xbox with a few months of basic training. Well, it’s the same thing with education when it comes to viruses. You can’t gut science teachers. You can’t pay science teachers pennies and not teach kids about basic science and the scientific method and what it means to look at data when they’re little kids. Then suddenly when they’re grownups expect them to learn about airborne droplet theory. You can’t do that. You’ve got to start when the brain is easily taught. Then by the time they’re grown up they go, “Oh yeah, that’s what my science teacher taught me about. I get it.”
It drives me crazy when I see my fellow artists grab the American public and have their attention and then just waste it because it didn’t used to be that way. Every episode of “Star Trek” had not only hard science behind it, but also a morality tale behind it and it doesn’t take that much to get back to it.”
This is really an incredible panel that goes further than connecting Zombie Apocalypse pop entertainment to our current health crisis for funsies. It also gets into some of our biggest societal issues in education and how entertainment itself is a very useful tool to prepare, educate, and motivate our people to take action and understand important issues facing us. You should be very cognizant of the people who decry entertainment that has a message or a political stance. Usually, the reason that people are against it is not that they hate movies with a message – because let’s face it, every book, movie, TV show, song, whatever has a message. It’s because they don’t like the message that is being transmitted and that entertainment is a particularly effective way to transmit ideas to the people.
To wrap this up, here are the two last quotes from the panel and, of course, they’re from Max Brooks:
“I also think we need to change the culture of public health and make it national security because it’s one and the same. Because right now, you can’t tell me that right now, around this planet there aren’t people in Beijing and Moscow and Pyongyang and Tehran and wherever who have seen a microbe bring the world to its knees and are not thinking, “we need to bottle something like this.”. I think we need to take biodefense as seriously as we take any form of national security.”
Re: charges of using entertainment as heavy-handed propaganda.
“It’s not propaganda if it’s truth.”