Martin Rees is a British astronomer and existential risks philosopher with a decidedly gloomy outlook, predicting that humanity only has a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. Steven Pinker hardly needs an introduction, but in short, he is an evangelist of the idea that the world is getting better – richer, nicer, safer – and that it will continue on that merry road into the indefinite future. In early 2017, the two made a $400 bet on whether bio(t)error will kill one million people within a single 6 month period by the end of The Current Year.
I have taken up Martin Ree's bet: "A bioterror or bioerror event will lead to 1m casualties by 2020." – Long Bets https://t.co/DnrufYwQIO
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) January 26, 2017
Rees was set to lose. But there’s now a faint chance that, Corona-chan willing, he will be able to make a last
minute year save, should this virus satisfy the following conditions:
- Kill one million people by Dec 31, 2020.
- If it emerges that it had manmade causes (bioerror or bioterror).
Both confirmed cases and deaths are, as of the time of writing, following a hard exponential curve (r2=0.998). The relationship between the two has also remained steady, with deaths constituting 3% of all cases. Simple extrapolations show thousands of cumulative deaths by early February, and hundreds of thousands by the middle of the month. Now such extrapolations are always questionable, and in this particularly case still very unlikely to happen, since the effects of quarantines and public awareness are going to kick in imminently. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting that simulations by some epidemiologists are projecting 13,000 confirmed cases in China by February 4, which translates into 400 cumulative deaths if that relation continues to hold.
There are still many more knowns than unknowns. For instance, confirmed cases are almost certainly greatly underestimated, because:
- People are incubating Corona without showing symptoms (though they are capable of infecting other people during this period, at least according to the Chinese – the CDC have disputed this);
- Many people have negligible or mild symptoms, and don’t try to visit a hospital. Almost all estimates (e.g. here) agree that this category of people is an order of magnitude (10-20x) greater than the number of confirmed cases;
- Hospitals are turning away some seriously ill people in Wuhan, where the healthcare system is close to breaking point;
Meanwhile, mortality may also be underestimated on account of:
- Some or many of those currently sick will yet die – about 25% of confirmed cases are labeled “serious”;
- According to reports, some deaths are diagnosed as having been caused by regular pneumonia, and their bodies are rapidly cremated before tests could be carried out.
- Six of the first 41 patients with confirmed Corona have died, producing a mortality rate of 15%;
- Perhaps most disturbingly, the number of cured patients is barely keeping pace with mortality (60 cured vs. 82 deaths as of now). Hopefully, this is largely an artifact of (a) confirmed cures lagging deaths, just as deaths lag case confirmations; (b) less attention being paid to this indicator, as opposed to the number of confirmed cases and deaths.
Finally, there are allegations that China is purposefully underestimating one or both of these factors. I am not qualified to comment on that (though I suspect few people are).
The one good thing is that (1) > (2), most likely, so the current 3% mortality may be considered to be the upper limit.
My best guess it’s more like 1%, i.e. take the one concrete number we have (mortality = 15% for the first 41 confirmed cases), and adjust downwards by the number of unregistered cases (90%+). This would make it equivalent to the first wave of the Spanish Flu, which primarily affected boomers, just like Corona. But as with that plague from a century ago, there is a risk of it mutating into the form that causes cytokine storms and starting to kill off young people in much greater numbers, as in the second wave of the Spanish Flu.
In any case, even if it remains Spanish Flu Lite and contained to China, that would still easily result in a million plus casualties (e.g. 1.4B population * 25% infection rate * 1% mortality = 3.5 million). So Rees would win this one.
If it becomes a global pandemic, we could be looking at 10-20 million deaths. And if there is a mutation that turbocharges mortality, then 100 million-200 million are not out of the question.
We will have a much better of where this is going in a week’s time, when a divergence from a strongly exponential trend would need to happen to avoid tens of thousands of cases and there will be a clarification on whether human-to-human transmissions outside China are taking hold.
Another rare Corona-chan.
As for the origins of the virus, the standard theory is that it was a spillover from bats, which was spread to the population at large through the Wuhan Wholesale Seafood Market (hence all the memes about about bat soup). Now just to be clear, I am not promoting any of the conspiracies that this outbreak was caused by the NWO following the Georgia Guidestones, that its cover for FEMA taking over the US, that it’s an ethnic bioweapon that backfired, and so forth.
But there are some interesting details amongst the rubbish:
- There has been research on bioengineering a bat-derived coronavirus with the backbone of one that causes SARS in mice. Such research was banned in the US in 2013, but presumably not in China. One of the coauthors, Xing-Yi Ge, is affiliated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
- According to a recently published paper by Chinese scientists at The Lancet, the Wuhan wet market wasn’t the primary source. 13 of the first 41 patients (including the very first) had no link to that market.
- Wuhan hosts the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s first maximum biosafety (BSL-4) facility, which was opened in 2017. It was to specialize in the study of dangerous zoonotic diseases such as ebola, H5N1, and coronaviruses such as SARS. It is located 20 miles from the infamous wet market. In the same year, Nature published an article raising concerns over the risk of pathogen escape from the Wuhan lab: “The SARS virus has escaped from high-level containment facilities in Beijing multiple times, notes Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University… Tim Trevan, founder of CHROME Biosafety and Biosecurity Consulting in Damascus, Maryland, says that an open culture is important to keeping BSL-4 labs safe, and he questions how easy this will be in China, where society emphasizes hierarchy. “Diversity of viewpoint, flat structures where everyone feels free to speak up and openness of information are important,” he says.“
- There was a curious event in July 2019, when a Chinese researcher wife (Xiangguo Qiu) and husband (Keding Cheng) pair and some Chinese students were removed from Canada’s only BSL-4 facility for having undertaken unauthorized visits to China [1, 2], as well as sending ebola and Henipah viruses to Beijing on a commercial Air Canada flight . Questions about whether IP theft or espionage was involved aside – by that time, Canada and China had poor relations – this does seem to suggest a negligent attitude towards biosafety on the part of the Chinese.
- FWIW (probably not much), the US State Department and an Israeli spook have alleged that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was in dual civilian-military research, i.e. a bioweapons program.
- In a recent Twitter thread, Harvard public health scientist Eric Feigl-Ding outlined some very unusual aspects of Corona’s RNA genome based on a paper prepublished on January 27: ““A BLAST search of 2019-nCoV middle fragment revealed no considerable similarity with any of the previously characterized corona viruses (figure 2)” —> it’s a sequence entirely new to any known #coronavirus. What does this mean? We don’t know yet. Notably, the new coronavirus provides a new lineage for almost half of its genome, with no close genetic relationships to other viruses within the subgenus of sarbecovirus.” —> basically it’s saying it’s completely brand new to #coronavirus subgenus. Very strange: So what is in this new mystery middle segment that has no #coronavirus history? The study authors continue: “This genomic part comprises also half of the spike region encoding a multifunctional protein responsible also for virus entry into host cells[30,31]”. Continuing: “Our study rejects the hypothesis of emergence as a result of a recent recombination event.”—> I.e. the authors also conclude that the new #coronavirus did not originate from random recent admixture between different coronaviruses. Other possibilities of course. BOTTOMLINE: 1) Seafood market not the source. 2) This RNA #coronavirus mutates really fast. 3) RNA has unusual middle segment never seen before in any coronavirus. 4) Not from recent mixing. 5) That mystery middle segment encodes protein responsible for entry into host cells.“
I am not saying that this is the case. But given its profile in studying zoonotic diseases and the apparently low level of biosafety culture in China, I don’t think it’s it’s entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the original source was a coronavirus that the Wuhan Institute was experimenting that somehow accidentally got out. Slight puncture in hazmat suit leading to unnoticed infection. Clogged air filters wafting the virus outside and infecting somebody passing by (e.g. see Sverdlovsk anthrax leak). Malfunctioning effluent decontamination system making its way into the sewers, to be scooped up as gutter oil and served as street food (including at the Wuhan Seafood Wholesale Market?). There are plenty of possibilities. Note that this needn’t have any nefarious motives, such as a bioweapons program. For instance, one major motivation for fiddling with these viruses is to ascertain just how easily they could mutate into a human transmissible form. Meanwhile, the failure to contain it in the early days, when it was still containable, could be precisely ascribed to the lack of an “open culture” in the Wuhan local government, whose response was to arrest eight whistleblowers as rumor-mongers and put on a feast for 40,000 people to “prove” that everything was OK.
While there’s no smoking gun here, at least the remote possibility that this was bioerror cannot be ruled out. Steven Pinker may yet get pwned this year.