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In moments when I am not obsessively reading technical reports on COVID-19, my mind drifts to science fiction plots involving invaders. Do these films offer clues to how we can defeat the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2?
With the government-ordered CDC guidance for reopening delayed, dumbed-down, cut by an order of magnitude, and ignored, we need help, from anywhere, in protecting the vulnerable while restoring some economic normalcy.
The space invaders of the classic depictions either succumb to slowly-emerging natural weaknesses or we blow them up. But the scariest sci-fi theme to me isn’t about monsters or microbes at all.
In the film Logan’s Run, people over age 30 sacrifice themselves to save resources for the others.
From Martians to Bioweapons to Pig Throats
“The Martians had no resistance to the bacteria in our atmosphere to which we have long since become immune. Once they had breathed our air, germs, which no longer affect us, began to kill them. The end came swiftly,” wrote H.G. Wells in 1897’s The War of the Worlds. Nature prevailed, the solution simple.
I don’t think that SARS-CoV-2 will fall victim to anything natural, and drugs in development so far seem only to shorten the course of the illness. But perhaps the virus will mutate itself into a more benign form.
My favorite film as a kid was 1953’s Invaders from Mars.
A boy awakens during a thunderstorm and looks out his window to see a spaceship just beyond the backyard burrow under a sandpit. Over the next few days, people stumble into the pit, beginning with his father, and come back changed: nasty and robotic, with tiny chips on the backs of their necks.
Tunnels from the sandpit lead to a submerged flying saucer, where, later in the film, the boy, with a doctor and an astronomer, encounter the leader of the Martians.
The alien is a large, disembodied green head with a human-like face atop a tiny betentacled body entombed in a gelatinous balloon, surrounded by “tall, green, silent, synthetic mutants” that evoke imagery of a presidential news conference. Army tanks roll in, detonate the sandpit and its environs, and then the boy wakes up.
Most mornings I wish we could all wake up and find that the past few months have been a collective nightmare.
In 1969’s The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a satellite picks up a bit of living goo from space and crashes in a small town in New Mexico. “Microorganisms” – presumably bacteria because viruses aren’t alive – infect the residents, who expire instantly from massively clotting blood. Only two people survive: an old alcoholic addicted to Sterno (the canned flame used to warm food at buffets) and a screaming infant. The pathogen, it turns out, needs human blood that is within the normal pH range of 7.39 to 7.43. The alcoholic’s pH is a smidge too low (acidic) and the bawling baby’s a bit too high (basic) from gulping in air.
What dictates susceptibility to COVID-19? I suspect that genetics will reveal why some people don’t develop symptoms from the coronavirus while others succumb.
Viral villains came on the sci fi film scene in the 1990s. By then, we’d learned much more about them.
The field of molecular biology arose in the 1970s and 1980s from study of the control circuits of gene expression within the sparse genomes of the simplest viruses. Those experiments paved the way for the commandeering of other viruses, beginning in the 1990s, as gene therapy vectors. But the early days of virology didn’t inspire much science fiction – those viruses infected bacteria, not us.
Then the outbreak of Ebola virus disease in Zaire in 1995 introduced the horror of a rapidly-spreading, swiftly lethal hemorrhagic fever. People bled out.
The 1995 film Outbreak concerns a bioweapon similar to the Ebola virus, the Motaba virus, made by the US, so we conveniently had an “anti-serum” antidote all along. As the government rushes to contain/destroy an accidentally infected town, the good guys, led by Dustin Hoffman, procure the cure and save the day.
Alas, there’s no hidden elixir to vanquish SARS-CoV-2, because the science indicates that it is not a bioweapon. This article in Nature Medicine explains the impossibility by comparing the critical RNA sequences of the new virus and related coronaviruses and deducing how they bind our ACE2 receptors.
The 2011 film Contagion is so accurate that it is difficult to distinguish it from the news. Plus it offers the opportunity to see Gwenyth Paltrow as patient zero Beth Emhoff.
The Gwenyth pathogen, MEV-1, is faster and messier than SARS-CoV-2, if not as bloody as Motoba. Fortunately, a vaccine against MEV-1 magically appears by day 133 and everyone on the planet receives it two days later.
The final sequence in Contagion of bats pooping on pigs in Hong Kong and a chef sticking his hand into an infected pig’s mouth and then shaking hands with Gwenyth, who then boards a plane home to Minnesota, is a realistic re-enactment of the origin of an influenza pandemic. “Somewhere in the world the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” a voiceover intones. Even the historical backdrop is accurate, with a character early on lamenting the laxity in preparedness that followed the H1N1 influenza false alarm of 2009.
I doubt that we or anyone else will have a vaccine against COVID-19 ready for global distribution in mere months. Calling the effort “operation warp speed” won’t automatically “make it so,” as Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise might say.
Reopenings and Logan’s Run
The most chilling sci-fi corollary to what’s going on now with COVID-19 isn’t about invaders, bioweapons, or infected pigs, but about a stark, bioethical choice: In a time of dual health and economic crises, do we risk the vulnerable to preserve resources for others? Or is compromise possible? I think it is.
The decision to endanger a few to benefit the many strongly evokes Logan’s Run.
The novel, published in 1967 by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson, depicts a dystopian society in the year 2116. Overpopulation has swelled the ranks of the under-21, and so older folks must submit to voluntary euthanasia in order to free up resources.
The 1976 film, luckily for me, upped the age of demise to 30 – I was then 22. And the year became 2274.
In that time and place, a computer-controlled society lives under a protective dome. To keep the population down to preserve the happy lifestyle, the old folks voluntarily, even joyous in their delusion, go to “Carousel” to “renew,” a euphemism for rising up from a merry-go-round like contraption as they perish. A color-changing crystal embedded in peoples’ palms reflects aging, much like going a few months in quarantine without hair dye.
The eponymous Logan is a “Sandman” whose job is to round up oldsters, called Runners, who’ve bolted for a place, Sanctuary, where they can live out a normal lifespan. He meets up with a pre-Charlie’s Angels Farrah Fawcett, but she perishes before he can escape. He finds survivors on the outside, including an old man with cats who recalls how Washington DC, where they apparently are, fell.
Older Lives Matter
The idea of people approaching a certain age willingly losing their lives, in the time and place of Logan’s Run, is chilling. But the idea of them doing so unwillingly is even more terrifying. That’s what can happen to those of us over age 60 or with medical conditions that place us at higher risk – unless we protect ourselves from people who choose to ignore rules.
Yes, we understand that businesses are failing and masses of people are unemployed and many are suffering, and that the risk of that extreme anxiety must in some way be balanced against risk of infection. But will reopening to a great extent too soon impose Carousel on our older population? We have the statistics to guide decisions, but not every state adheres to them.
But experiences in other countries, and data beginning to accrue three weeks after the first re-openings in the US, indicate a glimmer of hope.
Sweden has taken a lot of flak for keeping many public places open, with the vulnerable choosing to stay away, but a friend of a friend who lives there put that into perspective: last year from January until now (mid-May), about 32,000 people died. This year, it’s 34,000. It’s not as if a third of the elders have perished, as she said she’s read.
Some places in the US that have partially re-opened haven’t had as dire consequences as predicted – yet. The number of cases in Georgia, for example, hasn’t spiked, as many expected. It may be too soon to tell if partial re-opening is truly safe, but it could be thanks to many ordinary citizens listening to the scientists and physicians and adhering to public health recommendations. Perhaps we won’t actually come near the projected number of deaths by summer’s end as states reopen.
But with the Wisconsin supreme court overruling the governor’s stay-at-home order, calling it “”unlawful” and “unenforceable,” and other states swiftly following in reopening, it’s pretty clear that we the vulnerable must protect ourselves.
We must continue to stay at home, venture out only to uncrowded places, and take precautions when we must go into a grocery store or other public place. We must limit with whom we interact. It’s a lot of “musts.”
We must do what we can to survive, to avoid the virus, until and if a vaccine is developed. Meanwhile, “immunity licenses” issued to people who have recovered and make protective antibodies, enabling them to return to the outside world in carefully curated ways, may effectively dilute the virus in some environments.
“An immunity passport enhances the liberty of those people who‘ve been exposed to and recovered from COVID-19, but doesn’t diminish the liberty of those who are naïve to the virus,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, during a recent webinar and in a Viewpoint in JAMA. He deems the licenses – aka certificates or passports – “almost inevitable.” I’ll be publishing a piece on immunity licenses next week.
In the longer term we can contemplate herd immunity, the fact that reaching a certain percentage of protected individuals in a population halts spread of an infectious disease. But it doesn’t always happen. For protection against SARS-CoV-2, at least 70 percent of the population must be vaccinated, recovered, or naturally resistant to the infection. So we must be prepared for a second and possibly third wave of COVID-19 as virus continues to spread. Natural immunity, if SARS and MERS are any indication, could last only two or three years, if that. Let’s hope the permanency of a vaccine is possible.
I don’t think even the masters of science fiction, with their rapid solutions to space invasions and epidemiological disasters, could have imagined our cnrrent predicament.
Be well, everyone.