From 1998: Times Speculates on the Resurgence of New Plagues

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Here’s another old article, this time from the Times, Monday, August 4 1997. Written by Anjana Ahuja, ‘Are We Ready for the Next Plague’ argues that the world has been mistaken in scaling back its defences against global disease, leaving us seriously unprepared. Subtitled ‘We are dropping our defences against disease’, the article runs

In the Middle Ages, one would not have lingered by the marshes of eastern England, particularly those in Kent and Essex. Nowhere in the country, which was falling prey to plagues, was more hospitable to the malaria parasite.

The menace of malaria hung over British shores until the mid-19th century, when it mysteriously declined. By 1940, the disease was no longer a threat to humans, because of rising standards of hygiene, the falling price of the anti-malarial drug quinine and the lessening availability of cattle, on which mosquitoes prefer to dine. But there is no guarantee, says a leading parasitologist, that malaria will not haunt the nation again.

The warning has been issued by Robert Desowitz, Adjunct Professor of Epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, who has spent many of his 71 years studying insect-borne diseases in places such as Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Burma, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, India, Laos, Vietnam and Sir Lanka. His view, expressed in his book, Tropical Diseases, is that the “golden age of antibiotics is waning”. As a result, he says, it is not impossible that the nightmares once vanquished by modern science will recur. Isolated outbreaks of Ebola and Lassa fever are, like the rise of HIV, a sign to him that we should be on our guard. However, he does not wish to seem apocalyptic. ” It may be true thyat there are diseases coming out of the jungle to kill us,” he says. “My response is that we don’t know that, but we ought to stay alert.”

His book is an eloquent, and sometimes alarming, history of how diseases have hitched their way around the world. The subtext is that humans, particularly in the colder climes (this includes the British), live in a fool’s paradise. Our defences are further weakened by mass migration and global change, leading to great changes in epidemiology. He expresses incredulity that worldwide efforts to combat infectious disease are being would down.

“I was listening on the radio this morning to America’s new military chief of staff, who was saying that we cannot demilitarise against old enemies,” he says. “The symmetry with disease struck me. We are not properly prepared.”

“The science budget is shrinking. My opinion is that the World Health Organisation is scientifically bankrupt. We are having problems with infectious disease. If you were going to certain parts of the world, you would be hard pushed to find a really good anti-malarial drug. We have neither cures nor preventions for viral diseases such as Ebola, Lassa and HIV.”

One particular worry is climate change, which he sees as an enormous potential problem. Tropical diseases such as malaria are very temperature-sensitive-higher temperatures allow an influx of alien pests and the warmth encourages the pests to breed more rapidly.

Other researchers have been discovering the effect of climate change on unwelcome visitors. Biologists at Leeds University have set up a simple experiment that shows what happens to insects when faced with temperature changes. Using eight linked cages, and three species of fruit fly adapted to different temperatures, Professor Bryan Shorrocks and Dr Andrew Davis have tried to replicate what would happen to fruit flies if the temperature changed across Europe. the Biotechnology and and Biological Research Council financed the £241,000 project.

The cages were connected by thin tubes through which the flies could migrate. The temperatures in the cages ranged from 10C to 25C; the intention was to mimic average temperatures across a swath of Europe stretching from Leeds to southern Spain. The optimum temperature for the three types of fruit fly – Drosophila subobscura, Drosophila simulans, and Drosophila manogaster – were respective, 15C, 20C and 25C. Fruit flies are easy to use and they breed quickly.

When each species was tested on its owns, and confined to one cage, it became extinct at temperature extremes. The next step was again to treat each species on its own, but to allow it to move through the tubes between cages.

Dr Davis reports: “The flies survived across the whole temperature regime. Where they became extinct, the population was topped up by individuals from other cages looking for more food and space to lay eggs.

The last, and most complex stage, was to populate the cages with different permutations of the three species. This was where the most interesting results began to emerge. For example, when subobscura and simulans were thrown together, the simulans species dominated its familiar temperature climate of 20C., but subobscura was more populous at about 10C, well below its optimum temperature.

Dr Davis says that each species did not necessarily behave according to expectation. He concludes: “We may not be able to predict where a species will occur on the globe purely by knowing its temperature requirements. It’s surprising.

In other words, matching the pest to a temperature zone is not that simple. Dr Davis is keen not be seen as alarmist. “I am not saying these effects will happen, or that they will be important,” he says. “But some of the things that might happen with global warming may need planning, particularly pest problems.

Professor Desowitz does not envisage doom for the human race. Not yet, anyway. “People have survived plagues before, but we are not preparing ourselves properly. Perhaps,” he adds, not without a whiff of menace, “London will become malarious again.”

Meera Senthilingam says much the same thing in her Outbreaks and Epidemics: Battling Infection from Measles to Coronavirus (London: Icon 2020). Climate change, migration and mass travel are leaving us vulnerable to new epidemics, traditional antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. And we still have no cures or treatments for diseases like Lassa fever. or Ebola. But whatever other faults Blair’s government had – and these are legion, like the invasion of Iraq – it did take the threat of a renewed epidemic seriously, especially after Avian and Swin flu. They invested in the NHS, and developed specialist medical and bureaucratic machinery and protocols to combat such an epidemic when it came along. And when the epidemic was wargamed in 2016, the Tories knew that we were seriously underprepared. But they simply didn’t care. They wanted austerity and budget cuts so they could give tax cuts to the super-rich. And as a result, this country has one of the very worst infection rates and mortality from Coronavirus in the world.

They knew the disease was coming. They did nothing.

60,000+ people have died.

The Tories are guilty, and Johnson is responsible for mass manslaughter at least.