The four horsemen of the pandemic

That’s the headline[1] for my latest piece in the Canberra Times. It doesn’t appear to be paywalled, but I’m including the text over the fold.

The 1918–19 pandemic has more to teach us about the biggest challenge we face, says JOHN QUIGGIN

We are all familiar with images of mud and death in the trenches of the First World War. But it’s only over the past year that many of us have seen photos of the influenza pandemic that raged during the last year of the war and on into 1919. Foreshadowing our own time, they show wards full of sick and dying patients, masked nurses, police and ordinary citizens, and even anti-mask protestors.

The Great War (as it was then called) directly caused the deaths of between fifteen and twenty-two million people, about half of whom were civilians, and a roughly equal number of severe injuries. But the 1918–19 pandemic was even more deadly, claiming the lives of around fifty million people, or roughly 3 per cent of the world’s population at that time. The loss of life was greater even than most estimates of the toll of the Second World, generally regarded as the most deadly event in history.

The link between the Great War and the influenza pandemic was more than a mere coincidence of timing. Massive movements of troops around the world — unprecedented at the time, but foreshadowing our own world of extensive tourist and business travel — were a major factor in spreading the 1918–19 pandemic. And, as with current pandemics, the close proximity of humans and food-producing animals played a major role. But recent research has also pointed to more direct links to the war, including the role of poison gas and the local climate change created by the conflict.

The 1918–19 pandemic was originally called the Spanish flu because of the extensive publicity given to cases in Spain, notably that of King Alfonso XIII, who fell gravely ill. As a neutral power, Spain had not imposed the wartime censorship that prevailed in other European countries.

The first recorded case — involving Albert Gitchell, an army cook at Camp Funston in Kansas — occurred in the United States on 4 March 1918. At this stage it was no more deadly than the usual seasonal influenza epidemic. It was in the trenches and camps of the Western Front that the disease took the deadly form that would kill millions, and particularly young people.

In 2005, a team of researchers led by J.S. Oxford of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London concluded that the prime culprit was a British base camp at Etaples in Northern France. “The Etaples camp had the necessary mixture of factors for emergence of pandemic influenza,” they wrote, “including overcrowding (with 100,000 soldiers daily changing), live pigs, and nearby live geese, duck and chicken markets (and) horses.” It also had an additional factor: “twenty-four gases (some of them mutagenic) used in large hundred-ton quantities to contaminate soldiers and the landscape.”  

The gases used in the Great War included chlorine, phosgene and (perhaps the most horrible of all) mustard gas, which not only caused disabling blistering but is also highly carcinogenic and mutagenic. The outbreak of flu, particularly deadly to the young men among whom it spread, probably arose from the mutagenic effects of one or more of these gases, combined with repeated transmission from humans to animals and vice versa.

Even more striking is the possibility that soil particles, explosives and other chemicals generated by the continuous bombardment on the Western Front played a role in generating a six-year European climate anomaly characterised by unusually cold and rainy weather — weather that contributed both to the infamous mud of the trenches and to the severity of the pandemic. As well as the obvious effects of cold weather, which weakened immunity and encouraged crowding indoors, the climate anomaly disrupted the migratory patterns of mallard ducks and other birds that were important vectors for the disease.

The existence of the climate anomaly has been demonstrated recently by a team including Alexander More and Paul Mayewski of the University of Maine Climate Change Institute. Using an ice core taken from the European Alps they showed the existence of a six-year period of heavy rain, snow and cold weather, driven by an influx of cold air. As they report, these conditions played a major role in “setting the stage for the onset, spread, and mutation of the H1N1 pandemic, while also increasing all‐cause deaths due to widespread harvest failures and worsening battlefield conditions.”

The researchers showed that mortality increases in times of lower temperatures and higher rainfall. These conditions were present during many of the major battles of the Great War, and may have increased the virulence of the influenza.

As with the war and the pandemic, the researchers suggest that the timing of the climate anomaly was not coincidental. The massive amounts of dirt and dust thrown into the air by continuous bombardment, along with the vast range of chemicals, could have provided the nucleus of rain clouds.  

This was, perhaps, the first instance of a war amplifying its destructive power through climatic effects. Later, during the Second World War, the destructive effects of incendiary bombing were amplified by firestorms, the powerful winds generated when fire consumed all the oxygen in areas struck by bombs. Even worse, though still thankfully hypothetical, is the prospect of a nuclear winter created by the massive fires a nuclear exchange would create.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. In 1914, nationalism and imperialism unleashed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The pestilence, famine and death unleashed by the fighting was made worse by climate change, itself caused by the war. Now, as the world struggles, and mostly fails, to deal with a new pandemic, the threat of catastrophic warming looms over us all, as does a global failure of democracy. Perhaps we can make better choices than the leaders of 1914 and their millions of enthusiastic followers. But it’s hard to be optimistic. •

fn1. After a series of disasters, I’m submitting my own headlines, with mixed success in getting them used. This one was mine.

17 thoughts on “The four horsemen of the pandemic

  1. Very thought-provoking. I didn’t know about the mutagenic effects of the gases used in WW1. Will they find an effect of all the gases and smoke given off by wildfires in 2020. Reduction in diesel particulate emissions in 2020 on the other hand may have saved some lives.

  2. Gem from the above article:

    “Coronavirus is too radical. America needs a more moderate virus that we can respond to incrementally.”

  3. The poisonous gases probably had no appreciable effect, but if you want they can be a cyanide cherry on top of bad situation after bad situation that made something nasty eventually cropping very likely.

  4. The suggestion that at at least one of the gases was mutagenic indicates that very mutagenic effect as a possible influence.

    “Mustard agent has extremely powerful vesicant (blistering) effects on its victims. In addition, it is strongly mutagenic and carcinogenic.” – Wikipedia.

    Possibly breakdown products are mutagenic too. But I don’t know enough about that.

    Also, with so many men infected in the large camp, some will die quickly, some recover quickly and some will linger a long time in field hospitals until evacuation. The ones who linger, their lungs can become evolutionary petri dishes (with mutagenic mustard gas remnants lingering?) potentially live-selecting or live-evolving a variant strain that is more potent on new lungs naive to the virus.

    “In genetic research, “passaging” is the deliberate placing of live viruses into cells or organisms to which they are NOT adapted for the purpose of making them adapted, i.e. speeding up their evolution.”

    Passaging might occur in the lungs of living patients with certain chronic diseases like those in question (airborne diseases). Keep the patients alive long enough with chronic infection and passaging can conceivably occur in their lungs. Lung tissue is probably most likely of all living tissues in a living subject to support this process.

    There is an origin hypothesis of this type for COVID-19. I am not expert in the subject but the paper’s hypothesized process seems feasible to me. We would need expert opinions on this topic.

  5. JQ said “probably arose from the mutagenic effects of one or more of these gases, combined with repeated transmission from humans to animals and vice versa.”

    Obviously Craig Kelly & Christensen et al, haven’t read this and connected “mutagenic effects of one or more of” – Ivermectin and hydroxycloroquine.

  6. An influenza virus has little protection and no way to repair itself, so from its point of view the entire world is a mutagenic fun house. Additional chemicals in concentrations low enough to not kill its hosts are mostly irrelevant. You’d think additional chemicals in high enough concentration to kill its hosts would reduce virus numbers and so lower total mutations, but for some reason new hosts kept arriving. Human particles can be kind of dumb like that.

  7. Geoffrey Blainey in the Weekend Australian – “Nobody is on record as predicting that in the space of 10 months it [Covid] would play havoc with the US, the home of medical innovation” . That makes me wonder who he is hanging around with. Obviously he doesnt visit this website.

  8. Blainey obviously hasn’t read Chris Hedges (America: The Farewell Tour) or followed him on the net. He obviously hasn’t read anything by Prof. R.D. Wolff or anything over at the Monthly Review. I mean why would you read any of that stuff? Man, those Marxists they don’t know anything do they? Except they predicted the imminent collapse of the system in the USA. Not by a virus specifically, but then the virus was just the final catalyst. The USA was primed to collapse (by neoliberalism) and its people primed to go nuts (by Murdoch). And here we are.

  9. Our local “elite degree program in economics” literally the name, officially assigned by some agency (possibly gone now, don’t keep up with that) once, not too long ago published a paper on its website about healthcare in international comparison. It was apparently deemed worthy of advertising it as an example of what great things those elite students could write (at least I hope it wasn’t some preprint of a Prof…). It gave Theranos, the outright Fraud blood testing company as an example how the less regulated US healthcare market would leave more opportunity for innovation than those over regulated European ones.

  10. The four horsemen of the covid-19 pandemic (or any pandemic in a human population) arguably are;

    (1) Lethality;
    (2) Transmissibility;
    (3) Mutability; and
    (4) Human Stupidity.

    The interactions of all these factors have, in many ways, generated the outcomes of the pandemic so far. What has been notable during this pandemic, given that we are a modern and science based civilization, has been the level of human stupidity demonstrated. Human stupidity and systemic and embedded socioeconomic stupidity have greatly worsened the outcomes of this pandemic. Now, the bad news just keeps coming. The reason that the bad news keeps coming is because humans have been stupid. Let’s not try to put a any false positive spin on our actions or our (capitalist) systems. Stupidity here means thoughts and actions that arise out of socially chosen ignorance and the wilful denial of verifiable facts.

    Human stupidity magnifies the other issues. Letting the virus spin out of control and create its own vast populations in about 100 million people total, thus far and rising, has given the virus vastly multiplied chances to mutate. This has already seen the rise of more highly transmissible variants which are now sweeping some countries like the UK and look like to sweep almost all countries on the planet.

    A mutation driven increase in transmissibility which at the same approximately maintains existing lethality is the mechanism most likely to cause more deaths; many more deaths. An increase in lethality much above current lethality would very likely cause natural selection pressure against the virus. Greater and/or more rapid lethality can mean hosts die before infecting too many others, depending on asymptomatic transmissability windows and other factors. Humans will react too (which indicates there is some level of basal good sense in humans) and institute harder measures to lock-down and prevent transmission.

    COVID-19’s lethality is probably in the “Goldilock’s zone” in a macabre sense. It is lethal enough to kill as many humans as possible without raising undue alarm about its lethality. It manages to keep slipping under humans’ “radar”. A higher level of alarm (and the concomitant impossibility of denying its seriousness) may well have prompted far more effective actions from humans to prevent the pandemic’s spread. This increase in transmissibility without an accompanying increase in lethality (which could still happen anyway) is probably optimal for the virus’s spread. Higher transmissiblity catches us out continually. We mostly cannot propelrly comprehend both this type of exponential growth and what it means for taking early har-line to prevent exponential explosions of the viral population.

    Those who argued for early draconian lock-downs, national and international, now stand vindicated not just thousands of times over but hundreds and thousands of times over. That is the level of carnage we could have prevented by global lock-down to global elimination from say 1st Feb. or even 1st March 2020. Today we see all the carnage unleashed so far with much, much more to come. And the economic damage from the rampant spread is and will be of the order of 100 times greater than the economic cost of an early lock-down.

    The inevitability of the rank stupidity of our reaction to covid-19 was baked-in or built-in to the assumptions of the neoliberal capitalism(s) extant around the world. This was and is a systemically guaranteed outcome given the capitalist system. We must admit that to ourselves or the necessary changes (to literally save civilization from covid-19 to climate change) simply will not come Plenty of people in the know predicted these dangers: from “left” economists pointing out the dangers of market fundamentalism to medical and epidemiological experts warning of a coming pandemic of some kind, perhaps even of zoonotic origin, and also pointing out we were not prepared. All of these experts were ignored and derided by capitalists, capitalism’s sympathizers and the great numbers of the general public who allowed themselves to be fooled and who now deny science and prefer to follow the fake news of the media tycoons and populist politicians (Murdoch and Trump in a nutshell).

    The bad news keeps coming. Further new variants (most more transmissible) are arising almost on a weekly basis. New studies indicate that immunity from a previous bout of COVID-19 and from vaccination only lasts about 5 months. If true, this is devastating and terrifying news. I will follow up and post links on this. All of this could have been prevented by absolute global hard lockdown early on. This is SARS2. We should have assumed the worst from a virus of that family and done the right thing early on.

  11. Iko, don’t be deceived. If the vaccine doesn’t provide 10+ years of protection it would be the first time this has occurred for a vaccine with 90%+ effectiveness. I can’t be 100% certain you won’t turn into a bird tomorrow because tomorrow hasn’t happened yet, but I can be pretty damn confident.

    It is possible a new strain of the virus could arise that a particular vaccine doesn’t work on, but because there are multiple effective vaccines I am not very worried by this. Anyway, the chance can be almost eliminated with simple public health measures that are being implemented by all sensible countries. (So, about 7 of them, with a very broad definition of the word “sensible”.)

  12. Yes, I guess I should prepare myself for castigation from sundry quarters once again. The study says (and these are baiscally quotes form the UK Govt website:

    (a) Past COVID-19 infection provides some immunity but people may still carry and transmit virus.
    (b) Past infections provide 83% protection against reinfection, compared to people who have not had the disease before. This appears to last at least for 5 months from first becoming sick.

    In summary:

    “We now know that most of those who have had the virus, and developed antibodies, are protected from reinfection, but this is not total and we do not yet know how long protection lasts. Crucially, we believe people may still be able to pass the virus on.”

    Other experience from the coronavirus family (but not of SARS types which COVID-19 (SARS- CoV2) is) suggests an expoected immunity of from 6 months to 2 years. Ronald claims “If the vaccine doesn’t provide 10+ years of protection it would be the first time this has occurred for a vaccine with 90%+ effectiveness.” He provides no source for that claim and I haven’t checked it yet. In any case, the potential still exists for mutations to circumvent vaccines.

    “The Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines could offer immunity against COVID-19 for up to two to three years. However, they will most likely have to be administered annually.
    The vaccines will likely protect against current variants of COVID-19 as well as the original virus itself.
    Immunity wanes as antibody levels drop in response to a lack of use.” – VeryWellHealth.

    There you have it. About 80% immunity after 5 months (assuming for the sake of argument that real exposure and vaccination result in about the same level of immunity) and then decaying immunity over time to effectively zero immunity at 2 years as a best guesstimate on current knowledge. And this will necessitate annual vaccinations as would mutations as well. We are in an arms race with a dangerous mutating zoonotic virus.

    This is an ongoing sh**-storm of gargantuan dimensions and it WAS avoidable if (leftish) economic experts, all major medical experts and all major epidemiological experts had been listened to from the outset of reasonable apprehension of real danger on or about 1st Feb 2020 to 1st. March 2020 Instead, the precepts of market fundamentalism, money-before-everything, and absurd herd immunity theorizing were applied which the relevant experts also inveighed against from early on… and here we are.

    The WHO is now saying “COVID-19 herd immunity unlikely in 2021 despite vaccines” Strap yourselves in people for years more to this novel zoonotic disease crisis. And it as almost all avoidable. Our capitalist socioeconomic system and its elite political and oligarchic suffer from Dunning-Kruger effect along with the majority of the population. We were systemically (and “lack-of-educationally”) too stupid to avoid this crisis. It’s about time we admitted our stupidity and change what are doing. Pretending the situation is under control and our system is okay is the ticket to collapse and extinction.

  13. Despite all the scientific knowledge at hand for humanity on epidemiology (and many other areas), many of our leaders still don’t seem to learn from history and the available sound scientific advice, and continue to make the same basic mistakes.

    Per US CDC, the so-called Spanish Flu infected an estimated 500 million people, or about one-third of the world’s population, killing at least 50 million worldwide and an estimated 675,000 deaths in the USA.

    On Tuesday (12 Jan 2021), a record more than 4,400 COVID-19 daily deaths were reported in the US and the country is rapidly approaching and will inevitably surpass 400,000 total deaths, before Trump leaves office. If the current death rate continues, the US will likely see more than 500,000 total deaths by next month (Feb) and 600,000 by March 2021. I’d suggest the vaccine rollout is unlikely to significantly retard those figures for the next few months. I’d suggest in absolute numbers, in the USA, no matter what Biden does from when he becomes President next week, COVID-19 will likely be more deadly and destructive (including “long COVID” cases) than the Spanish Flu. This will be Trump’s undeniable legacy.

    The UK seems to be worse than the US on a per capita basis, with a daily death rate spiking above 1,500 on Wed (Jan 13), and daily case rates at around 50-60,000. This will be Boris Johnson’s undeniable legacy.

    These are the ongoing deadly consequences of not learning from the lessons of history and science – the Dunning-Kruger effect at play, as David Dunning says:

    “As empirical evidence of meta-ignorance, I describe the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.”

  14. Hix – do you have a link for the Theranos plug? In a different field, advocates of market reform in education here used to be very keen on the University of Phoenix.

  15. Predictably, the attempt to organize the Melbourne Australian Tennis Open has turned into a fiasco. The base issue here is that people have not adjusted to the new reality. COVID-19 is a highly infectious global pandemic of significant lethality. The time for fun and games is over. All nations must shut down all non-essential travel nationally, regionally and globally until the pandemic is defeated. Sport, like tourism, is non-essential.

    It almost defies belief that Victoria, having dodged a bullet with its last outbreak should play Russian Roulette again with another covid-19 bullet in the chamber loaded at the collective heads of all Australians. This madness of placing sport and money above human lives has to stop. The same applies to the Cricket Tests. Pushing mass sporting events constitutes an unnecessary risk at this stage. Bringing in overseas competitors is completely lunatic. The rest of the world is awash with COVID-19. It is near certain that any plane load of people, spaced out or not, will have cases.

    It seems like the sports and tourism lobbies won’t desist until we too are awash with COVID-19’s newest, fastest-spreading, mutated strains and people are dying by the tens of thousands all over Australia. Is that what they want? Seeing that a lot of older capitalists, managers and organizers make money out of sport and tourism, I guess this madness might end when, as a class, a significant percentage of them die from COVID-19 or get long haul Covid-19. Is this what it is going to have to take?

  16. Iko, the number of people who will catch COVID-19 twice or more will be extremely low. The number of people who catch it from someone who has been vaccinated will be extremely low. In countries where it is not under control, once everyone over 85 is vaccinated there will be a big drop in deaths and deaths will continue to fall as more people are vaccinated. We have multiple effective vaccines that work in multiple ways so no virus variant is likely to crop up that won’t be stopped by vaccination. Because vaccines have shown to be very effective lower doses can provide effective protection in young people. Poorer countries skew young so world vaccination will be reasonably quick. The greatest risk is the virus will find or has found an animal population it can be endemic in. Hopefully this won’t happen but worst case is likely to be re-immunize every 10 years or so.

    I can’t be 100% certain this is what will happen but it is what is very likely to happen. I am so certain I am willing to bet 100 lines. If I’m mostly right you write “I am way too pessimistic” 100 times and if you are mostly right I will write out “I am way too optimistic” 100 times. I’ll even give you odds of 10 to 1 so you only have to write it out 10 times if I’m right.

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