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Is it catching?

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There’s another theory as to how epidemics happen—and it’s not person to person

It is a universally acknowledged truth that viruses are spread from person to person. That’s why the COVID-19 outbreak is being combated with an economically catastrophic lockdown, social distancing and face masks. And because viruses spread through human contact, our only hope is a vaccine that can protect us from the disease.

But there’s another possibility that doesn’t get talked about. Suppose we’ve all got it wrong about the way viral epidemics start and spread. Suppose, instead, that viruses are latent—in us, the soil or our food, perhaps—until they are sparked into life by some outside change that makes conditions ideal for their sudden emergence.

Sounds absurd? Of course, to our ears it does, but then it’s not part of the prevailing paradigm, or scientific worldview. Dr Tom Jefferson, senior associate tutor at the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, has been the latest to voice the “latent virus” theory.

The person-to-person theory needs a place and a “patient zero” where it all begins. But, Jefferson asks, where did COVID-19 begin? In a laboratory in Wuhan, perhaps? Possibly, but then samples of the virus were discovered in a remote mine in China back in 2013. Traces were also discovered in wastewater in Spain in March of last year, in sewage in Milan and Turin in December, and in Brazil last November. 1

These paradoxes that accompany every viral epidemic confound the “human spread” theory. Why, for instance, do flu epidemics peak in the winter, and then just disappear, as happened with the SARS outbreak of 2002? Virologist Richard Shope, who was the first to isolate the flu virus in pigs in 1931, became convinced by the “latent” theory, as was Dr Edgar Hope-Simpson, a physician in the UK who also studied epidemiology.

Hope-Simpson identified shingles as a reactivation of the chickenpox virus, itself an example of the latent theory, and he later became obsessed by flu epidemics. If they spread from person to person, he wondered, how do cases appear simultaneously in different parts of the world?

In 1918, the Spanish Flu infected more than 500 million people around the world, and despite quarantining and the wearing of face masks, it spread remorselessly, even faster than man could travel. It also infected places that had had no outside contact, such as the isolated community of Western Samoa, where around 30 percent of the population died.

Similar anomalies have been recorded during other flu outbreaks. In 1857, the British warship, The Arachne, suffered a catastrophic outbreak of flu among its crew, with 114 of 149 men on board falling ill. The same flu had also broken out on land, and in Cuba where the ship was headed—and yet The Arachne had been at sea for months.

A similar paradox happened 34 years later when the merchant ship Wellington set sail from London to New Zealand in December, 1891. Towards the end of the voyage the following March, the captain started suffering serious flu symptoms, similar to those that had just appeared in his destination port—and yet he hadn’t had any outside human contact for four months.

If people aren’t passing viruses to each other, what causes epidemics? Danish physician Johannes Mygge tracked pandemics over the years, along with his own health, and saw a close correlation to sunspot activity. Atmospheric changes certainly seemed to trigger his excruciating migraines, but could they really trigger a flu pandemic?

Mygge thought so, and so did Hope-Simpson, who came to a similar belief that pandemics are started by sudden spikes in solar radiation. He also thought that people low in vitamin D were more susceptible.

Dr Jefferson suggests the trigger could be in something more mundane—human feces, in fact. Feces could be the carrier of latent viruses that are catapulted into terrifying life by some outside influence. But we’ll only find out how epidemics happen if we put aside paradigms and instead do the groundwork.

Citing the work of one of the first epidemiologists, John Snow, who, in 1854, went against the prevailing medical view that cholera was an airborne disease to prove it came from contaminated water, he said: “You need to do what John Snow did. You question people, and you start constructing hypotheses that fit the facts, not the other way round.”

Following true science, in other words.

References

1

Daily Telegraph, July 5, 2020

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