By Mark Ellis –
Michael Osterholm is one of the top biosecurity and infectious disease specialists in the world and leads a center for infectious disease research at the University of Minnesota.
Three years ago he predicted a global flu pandemic that would rival the notorious 1918 Spanish flu and even devoted a chapter in his book, Deadliest Enemy, to a scenario of such a virus arising in China.
“In chapter 13 of my book, Deadliest Enemies, the title of the chapter is “SARS and MERS: Harbingers of things to come.” We predicted this.
“I also wrote in there what a flu pandemic would look like if it emerged in China. If you read it, it is exactly what happened: the supply chains went down, they had to lock down the country, it spread to other countries, people all pointed fingers. It is the kind of thing we hear it and hear it and we don’t get prepared.”
Osterholm appeared on Joe Rogan’s program on March 10th and described what was coming. Since then, the crisis has intensified in line with his predictions.
The public health scientist has spent his entire career tracking infectious diseases, trying to stop them, and attempting to understand where they come from so officials can make sure they don’t happen in the first place.
He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. “The hurt, pain, suffering and death that has occurred so far is just the beginning,” he told Rogan. “This is going to unfold for months to come, which is what people don’t quite understand.”
While China’s authoritarian government was able to de-accelerate the growth of the virus with extreme measures, when those measures are relaxed and people return to work, the virus will return, he predicts.
“As soon as they release all these social distancing, people mandated to stay at home, people who haven’t left their home in weeks and weeks, when they go back to work and are on crowded trains, planes, factories, it is going to come back again.”
The virus transmits very easily through the air, so breathing is all one needs to do to get infected – even from people exhibiting no signs of illness.
Based on the limited data available, this will be 10 to 15 times worse than the worst seasonal flu. He believes there could be 480,000 deaths that could occur over the next three to seven months.
One of Osterholm’s employees received a text from a cardiologist working at a hospital in Milan. “They are deciding who they have to let die. They aren’t screening the staff anymore because they need all hands on deck. They have very small areas of the hospital dedicated to non-COVID patients, where they still screen doctors. Everybody else is dedicated to COVID patients, so even if they (the doctors) are positive – meaning they are sick – but they don’t have a severe cough or fever, they have to work. They are seeing an alarming number of cases in the 40-something age range and these are horrible cases, so we need to stop thinking this is only an old person’s disease.”
“This is what is going to unfold, not just in Wuhan, or Milan. It is unfolding here in Seattle. This is what is going to rollingly unfold throughout the world,” he told Rogan.
A large percentage of men in China are smokers, which led to a terrible outcome for those who contracted the virus. “Men over the age of 70 who also smoked, eight to 10 percent of them died. The case fatality rate among women in that same age range is only two percent. In that case, very few women smoke.”
The high level of obesity in the U.S. concerns Osterholm. “We know that obesity is just like smoking in terms of its ability to cause serious, life-threatening disease. Forty-five percent of the population over age 45 is obese in this country, men and women. So my concern is that we will see more of these life-threatening cases occur in this country because of a different set of risk factors than we saw in China.”
So far, Osterholm’s prediction has been unfolding exactly as he predicted. “We at our center put out a piece January 20th, saying this is going to spread worldwide. At the time people said, no, it’s just China.
“We put out a piece the first week of February and said this is going to pop the last week of February or first week of March. It has a doubling time every four days. So if you go from two to four to eight to 16, it takes a while to build up. But when you start going from 500 to 1000 to 2000 to 4000, that’s what we’re seeing happen in places like Italy.”
The primary mechanism for transmission is breathing, Osterholm maintains. A study in Germany found at the moment when people first got sick they had an incredibly high amount of virus, sometimes 10,000 times what was seen with SARS – in their throats.
“This means they were infectious at that point and they really hadn’t had any symptoms at that point of a great nature. They weren’t coughing yet. That’s where we’re concerned.
“I’ve always said that trying to stop an influenza virus is like trying to stop the wind. We’ve never had anybody successfully do that.”