It is hard to be grateful that the coronavirus is now working its way through us, but it is certainly a vivid illustration of evolution at work. With no motivation beyond the joy of reproducing itself, it hops from one host to another, an equal-opportunity free rider. If it becomes too greedy in taking over the hosts, then the hosts die before they can pass on the invader to the fresh blood of gullible victims. So, without understanding that term, viruses compromise, leaving the walking wounded with enough energy to walk their way to the next victim. Delay in killing the host pays dividends as the number of infected hosts increases. In this way some strains become more lethal, but then may die out, and others become more benign, though that may make them more costly to us in the long run. Influenza no longer terrifies us, but it still kills large numbers by being so endemic. Coronavirus is probably an order of magnitude more lethal, and if it can retain its lethality while still hopping from host to host it might be a very painful unwanted long-term guest.
While the virus goes its merry way, on a path that can be modelled by looking at the number infected, and the number subsequently dead, damaged, or cured, other battles are taking place. The virus has been fully characterized, and should be open to attack, if a chink in its armour can be found as it mutates into different forms which might defeat any vaccination. Ideally, one crucial segment can be found which stays stable long enough for an attack to be mounted against it. This is an IQ test of the highest order, requiring the talents of very bright people who have had long exposure to these problems, probably at least ten year of lab work. Approving vaccines is a lengthy process, but genetic analysis is speeding up the discovery rate, and testing on animals might soon generate compounds worth trying on humans. Depending on the spread of the virus, and its lethality, more risks should be taken to find treatments or prevention. No need to take precautions about unwanted effects if you are at high risk of unwanted death.
Yet the biggest dilemma is the one every person now faces: is the risk high enough to warrant costly personal and social costs? It is said of epidemics that all measures taken against them are seen as exaggerated initially, and subsequently as inadequate. Is it worth wearing a mask? Worth washing hands more often? Worth avoiding crowds?
Naturally, what seems costly in terms of behavioural change in the initial stages of an epidemic can result in far more costly effects when the epidemic takes hold. This is a real test of forward planning: precautions have to be initiated when they are unnecessary, because once they are necessary it will be too late. That is a hard message to sell.
There is also a dilemma surrounding the overall strategy countries should adopt: go for strict quarantine, restrict all movements, cancel meetings, trace all contacts, and deny the virus access to human beings; or let people flow, test only those likely to be at risk and their contacts, restrict only the biggest meetings and let the virus sweep through the population, with any luck at a rate that services can cope with. The Wuhan strategy, imposed from a central government, seems to have worked. Deaths are on a downward trajectory. The Italian strategy may yet have the same good outcome, which will be testable a month or so from now.
The laisser-faire approach might prove to be the correct balance between maintaining economic activity and accepting some casualties. This is not the worst infection the world has coped with over the last few decades. However, it seems to be too lax in several ways. Restricting world-wide travel for a few months will restrict the virus without destroying the economy, since goods can move freely and are not a vector of infection. Self-monitoring of temperature is a very sensible policy. Avoiding non-essential contacts again is a worthwhile strategy for a month or two.
In the midst of all this, we have to look at the down-sides of all precautions. Avoiding planes after the twin towers attack caused more people to die in car accidents. Removing people from the Japanese nuclear power station led to more deaths among the elderly because of the disruption to their lives. Sometimes keeping calm and carrying on (with some restrictions) is the best policy.