The Coronavirus in America: The Year Ahead

The Four Percent


The coronavirus is spreading from America’s biggest cities to its suburbs, and has begun encroaching on the nation’s rural regions. The virus is believed to have infected millions of citizens and has killed more than 34,000.

Yet President Trump this week proposed guidelines for reopening the economy and suggested that a swath of the United States would soon resume something resembling normalcy. For weeks now, the administration’s view of the crisis and our future has been rosier than that of its own medical advisers, and of scientists generally.

In truth, it is not clear to anyone where this crisis is leading us. More than 20 experts in public health, medicine, epidemiology and history shared their thoughts on the future during in-depth interviews. When can we emerge from our homes? How long, realistically, before we have a treatment or vaccine? How will we keep the virus at bay?

Some felt that American ingenuity, once fully engaged, might well produce advances to ease the burdens. The path forward depends on factors that are certainly difficult but doable, they said: a carefully staggered approach to reopening, widespread testing and surveillance, a treatment that works, adequate resources for health care providers — and eventually an effective vaccine.

Still, it was impossible to avoid gloomy forecasts for the next year. The scenario that Mr. Trump has been unrolling at his daily press briefings — that the lockdowns will end soon, that a protective pill is almost at hand, that football stadiums and restaurants will soon be full — is a fantasy, most experts said.

“We face a doleful future,” said Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, a former president of the National Academy of Medicine.

He and others foresaw an unhappy population trapped indoors for months, with the most vulnerable possibly quarantined for far longer. They worried that a vaccine would initially elude scientists, that weary citizens would abandon restrictions despite the risks, that the virus would be with us from now on.

“My optimistic side says the virus will ease off in the summer and a vaccine will arrive like the cavalry,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a preventive medicine specialist at Vanderbilt University medical school. “But I’m learning to guard against my essentially optimistic nature.”

Most experts believed that once the crisis was over, the nation and its economy would revive quickly. But there would be no escaping a period of intense pain.

Exactly how the pandemic will end depends in part on medical advances still to come. It will also depend on how individual Americans behave in the interim. If we scrupulously protect ourselves and our loved ones, more of us will live. If we underestimate the virus, it will find us.

The gains to date were achieved only by shutting down the country, a situation that cannot continue indefinitely. The White House’s “phased” plan for reopening will surely raise the death toll no matter how carefully it is executed. The best hope is that fatalities can be held to a minimum.

Reputable longer-term projections for how many Americans will die vary, but they are all grim. Various experts consulted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March predicted that the virus eventually could reach 48 percent to 65 percent of all Americans, with a fatality rate just under 1 percent, and would kill up to 1.7 million of them if nothing were done to stop the spread.

A model by researchers at Imperial College London cited by the president on March 30 predicted 2.2 million deaths in the United States by September under the same circumstances.

By comparison, about 420,000 Americans died in World War II.

The limited data from China are even more discouraging. Its epidemic has been halted — for the moment — and virtually everyone infected in its first wave has died or recovered.

China has officially reported about 83,000 cases and 4,632 deaths, which is a fatality rate of over 5 percent. The Trump administration has questioned the figures but has not produced more accurate ones.

Fatality rates depend heavily on how overwhelmed hospitals get and what percentage of cases are tested. China’s estimated death rate was 17 percent in the first week of January, when Wuhan was in chaos, according to a Center for Evidence-Based Medicine report, but only 0.7 percent by late February.

In this country, hospitals in several cities, including New York, came to the brink of chaos. Officials in both Wuhan and New York had to revise their death counts upward this week when they realized that many people had died at home of Covid-19, strokes, heart attacks or other causes, or because ambulances never came for them.

In fast-moving epidemics, far more victims pour into hospitals or die at home than doctors can test; at the same time, the mildly ill or asymptomatic never get tested. Those two factors distort the true fatality rate in opposite ways. If you don’t know how many people are infected, you don’t know how deadly a virus is.

Only when tens of thousands of antibody tests are done will we know how many silent carriers there may be in the United States. The C.D.C. has suggested it might be 25 percent of those who test positive. Researchers in Iceland said it might be double that.

China is also revising its own estimates. In February, a major study concluded that only 1 percent of cases in Wuhan were asymptomatic. New research says perhaps 60 percent were. Our knowledge gaps are still wide enough to make epidemiologists weep.

“All models are just models,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, science adviser to the White House coronavirus task force, has said. “When you get new data, you change them.”

There may be good news buried in this inconsistency: The virus may also be mutating to cause fewer symptoms. In the movies, viruses become more deadly. In reality, they usually become less so, because asymptomatic strains reach more hosts. Even the 1918 Spanish flu virus eventually faded into the seasonal H1N1 flu.

At the moment, however, we do not know exactly how transmissible or lethal the virus is. But refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals tell us all we need to know: It is far worse than a bad flu season.

No one knows exactly what percentage of Americans have been infected so far — estimates have ranged from 3 percent to 10 percent — but it is likely a safe bet that at least 300 million of us are still vulnerable.

Until a vaccine or another protective measure emerges, there is no scenario, epidemiologists agreed, in which it is safe for that many people to suddenly come out of hiding. If Americans pour back out in force, all will appear quiet for perhaps three weeks.

Then the emergency rooms will get busy again.

“There’s this magical thinking saying, ‘We’re all going to hunker down for a while and then the vaccine we need will be available,’” said Dr. Peter J. Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

In his wildly popular March 19 article in Medium, “Coronavirus: The Hammer and the Dance,” Tomas Pueyo correctly predicted the national lockdown, which he called the hammer, and said it would lead to a new phase, which he called the dance, in which essential parts of the economy could reopen, including some schools and some factories with skeleton crews.

Every epidemiological model envisions something like the dance. Each assumes the virus will blossom every time too many hosts emerge and force another lockdown. Then the cycle repeats. On the models, the curves of rising and falling deaths resemble a row of shark teeth.

Surges are inevitable, the models predict, even when stadiums, churches, theaters, bars and restaurants remain closed, all travelers from abroad are quarantined for 14 days, and domestic travel is tightly restricted to prevent high-intensity areas from reinfecting low-intensity ones.

The tighter the restrictions, experts say, the fewer the deaths and the longer the periods between lockdowns. Most models assume states will eventually do widespread temperature checks, rapid testing and contact tracing, as is routine in Asia.

Even the “Opening Up America Again” guidelines Mr. Trump issued on Thursday have three levels of social distancing, and recommend that vulnerable Americans stay hidden. The plan endorses testing, isolation and contact tracing — but does not specify how these measures will be paid for, or how long it will take to put them in place.

On Friday, none of that stopped the president from contradicting his own message by sending out tweets encouraging protesters in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia to fight their states’ shutdowns.

China did not allow Wuhan, Nanjing or other cities to reopen until intensive surveillance found zero new cases for 14 straight days, the virus’s incubation period. Compared with China or Italy, the United States is still a playground.

Americans can take domestic flights, drive where they want, and roam streets and parks. Despite restrictions, everyone seems to know someone discreetly arranging play dates for children, holding backyard barbecues or meeting people on dating apps.

Partly as a result, the country has seen up to 30,000 new case infections each day. “People need to realize that it’s not safe to play poker wearing bandannas,” Dr. Schaffner said.

Even with rigorous measures, Asian countries have had trouble keeping the virus under control.

China, which has reported about 100 new infections per day, recently closed all the country’s movie theaters again. Singapore has closed all schools and nonessential workplaces. Japan recently declared a state of emergency. (South Korea has struggled at times, too, but on Sunday reported only eight new cases, the first single-digit increase in two months.)

Resolve to Save Lives, a public health advocacy group run by Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the former director of the C.D.C., has published detailed and strict criteria for when the economy can reopen and when it must be closed.

Reopening requires declining cases for 14 days, the tracing of 90 percent of contacts, an end to health care worker infections, recuperation places for mild cases and many other hard-to-reach goals.

“We need to reopen the faucet gradually, not allow the floodgates to reopen,” Dr. Frieden said. “This is a time to work to make that day come sooner.”

Dr. Fauci has said the White House was discussing certificates like those proposed in Germany. China uses cellphone QR codes linked to the owner’s personal details so others cannot borrow them.

The California adult-film industry pioneered a similar idea a decade ago. Actors use a cellphone app to prove they have tested H.I.V. negative in the last 14 days, and producers can verify the information on a password-protected website.

As Americans stuck in lockdown see their immune neighbors resuming their lives and perhaps even taking the jobs they lost, it is not hard to imagine the enormous temptation to join them through self-infection, experts predicted. Younger citizens in particular will calculate that risking a serious illness may still be better than impoverishment and isolation.

“My daughter, who is a Harvard economist, keeps telling me her age group needs to have Covid-19 parties to develop immunity and keep the economy going,” said Dr. Michele Barry, who directs the Center for Innovation in Global Health at Stanford University.

It has happened before. In the 1980s, Cuba successfully contained its small AIDS epidemic by brutally forcing everyone who tested positive into isolation camps. Inside, however, the residents had their own bungalows, food, medical care, salaries, theater troupes and art classes.

Dozens of Cuba’s homeless youths infected themselves through sex or blood injections to get in, said Dr. Jorge Pérez Ávila, an AIDS specialist who is Cuba’s version of Dr. Fauci. Many died before antiretroviral therapy was introduced.

It would be a gamble for American youth, too. The obese and immunocompromised are clearly at risk, but even slim, healthy young Americans have died of Covid-19.

Even though limited human trials of three candidates — two here and one in China — have already begun, Dr. Fauci has repeatedly said that any effort to make a vaccine will take at least a year to 18 months.

All the experts familiar with vaccine production agreed that even that timeline was optimistic. Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccinologist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, noted that the record is four years, for the mumps vaccine.

Researchers differed sharply over what should be done to speed the process. Modern biotechnology techniques using RNA or DNA platforms make it possible to develop candidate vaccines faster than ever before.

But clinical trials take time, in part because there is no way to rush the production of antibodies in the human body.

Also, for unclear reasons, some previous vaccine candidates against coronaviruses like SARS have triggered “antibody-dependent enhancement,” which makes recipients more susceptible to infection, rather than less. In the past, vaccines against H.I.V. and dengue have unexpectedly done the same.

A new vaccine is usually first tested in fewer than 100 young, healthy volunteers. If it appears safe and produces antibodies, thousands more volunteers — in this case, probably front-line workers at the highest risk — will get either it or a placebo in what is called a Phase 3 trial.

It is possible to speed up that process with “challenge trials.” Scientists vaccinate small numbers of volunteers, wait until they develop antibodies, and then “challenge” them with a deliberate infection to see if the vaccine protects them.

Challenge trials are used only when a disease is completely curable, such as malaria or typhoid fever. Normally, it is ethically unthinkable to challenge subjects with a disease with no cure, such as Covid-19.

Most American vaccine plants produce only about 5 million to 10 million doses a year, needed largely by the 4 million babies born and 4 million people who reach age 65 annually, said Dr. R. Gordon Douglas Jr., a former president of Merck’s vaccine division.

But if a vaccine is invented, the United States could need 300 million doses — or 600 million if two shots are required. And just as many syringes.

“People have to start thinking big,” Dr. Douglas said. “With that volume, you’ve got to start cranking it out pretty soon.”

Flu vaccine plants are large, but those that grow the vaccines in chicken eggs are not suitable for modern vaccines, which grow in cell broths, he said.

European countries have plants but will need them for their own citizens. China has a large vaccine industry, and may be able to expand it over the coming months. It might be able to make vaccines for the United States, experts said. But captive customers must pay whatever price the seller asks, and the safety and efficacy standards of some Chinese companies are imperfect.

India and Brazil also have large vaccine industries. If the virus moves rapidly through their crowded populations, they may lose millions of citizens but achieve widespread herd immunity well before the United States does. In that case, they might have spare vaccine plant capacity.

Alternatively, suggested Arthur M. Silverstein, a retired medical historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the government might take over and sterilize existing liquor or beer plants, which have large fermentation vats.

“Any distillery could be converted,” he said.

Previously unthinkable societal changes have taken place already. Schools and business have closed in every state, and tens of millions have applied for unemployment. Taxes and mortgage payments are delayed, and foreclosures forbidden.

Stimulus checks, intended to offset the crisis, began landing in checking accounts this week, making much of America, temporarily, a welfare state. Food banks are opening across the country, and huge lines have formed.

A public health crisis of this magnitude requires international cooperation on a scale not seen in decades. Yet Mr. Trump is moving to defund the W.H.O., the only organization capable of coordinating such a response.

And he spent most of this year antagonizing China, which now has the world’s most powerful functioning economy and may become the dominant supplier of drugs and vaccines. China has used the pandemic to extend its global influence, and says it has sent medical gear and equipment to nearly 120 countries.

A major recipient is the United States, through Project Airbridge, an air-cargo operation overseen by Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

This is not a world in which “America First” is a viable strategy, several experts noted.

“If President Trump cares about stepping up the public health efforts here, he should look for avenues to collaborate with China and stop the insults,” said Nicholas Mulder, an economic historian at Cornell University. He has called Mr. Kushner’s project “Lend-Lease in reverse,” a reference to American military aid to other countries during World War II.

Dr. Osterholm was even blunter. “If we alienate the Chinese with our rhetoric, I think it will come back to bite us,” he said.

“What if they come up with the first vaccine? They have a choice about who they sell it to. Are we top of the list? Why would we be?”

Once the pandemic has passed, the national recovery may be swift. The economy rebounded after both world wars, Dr. Mulder noted.

The psychological fallout will be harder to gauge. The isolation and poverty caused by a long shutdown may drive up rates of domestic abuse, depression and suicide.

Even political perspectives may shift. Initially, the virus heavily hit Democratic cities like Seattle, New York and Detroit. But as it spreads through the country, it will spare no one.

Even voters in Republican-leaning states who do not blame Mr. Trump for America’s lack of preparedness or for limiting access to health insurance may change their minds if they see friends and relatives die.

In one of the most provocative analyses in his follow-up article, “Coronavirus: Out of Many, One,” Mr. Pueyo analyzed Medicare and census data on age and obesity in states that recently resisted shutdowns and counties that voted Republican in 2016.

He calculated that those voters could be 30 percent more likely to die of the virus.

In the periods after both wars, Dr. Mulder noted, society and incomes became more equal. Funds created for veterans’ and widows’ pensions led to social safety nets, measures like the G.I. Bill and V.A. home loans were adopted, unions grew stronger, and tax benefits for the wealthy withered.

If a vaccine saves lives, many Americans may become less suspicious of conventional medicine and more accepting of science in general — including climate change, experts said.

The blue skies that have shone above American cities during this lockdown era could even become permanent.



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