On Friday, July 24th, 2020 at noon San Diego time, the prerecorded Zombies and Coronavirus: Planning for the next big outbreak panel was released on YouTube.
The panel featured author Max Brooks, who wrote both The Zombie Survival Guide and the sorta-follow-up, World War Z (his most recent novel, Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainer Sasquatch Massacre, was released on June 16th).
The other panelists were experts in fields that are not so commonly represented at SDCC. Dr. Greg Koblentz (George Mason University; Living Weapons: Biological Weapons and International Security), Dr. Gigi Gronvoll (John Hopkins University; Synthetic Biology; Preparing for Bioterrorism), Dr. Shanna Ratnesar-Shumate (Aerobiology specialist, University of Nebraska Medical Center), and Dr. Jarod Hanson (USAMRIID and University of Maryland Medical Center).
The panel was moderated by Justin Hurt, Comic-Con Today assistant editor, who began with a disclaimer stating that the opinions of the panelists were their own, and did not necessarily match those of either their respective employers nor Comic-Con International. The recording including an audience of viewers from John Hopkins University, George Mason University, and the National Defense University.
Hurt began with an introduction about coronavirus, tracing the roots to the 2002 – 2004 SARS pandemic and noting that we have seen several issues that took place during that situation re-emerge during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the dissemination of information to the press and the delayed notification of WHO (World Health Organization).
The 2009 H1N1 pandemic was another similar event in recent memory, which had 14,286 confirmed deaths. However, in this instance, testing may not have caught up to the actual rate of infection, so the death rate may actually be higher than anticipated.
In 2013, the West Africa Ebola Outbreak took place, with 26,646 confirmed cases and a case fatality rate of 39%. And four years later, another Ebola epidemic began with a case fatality rate of 66%, which was only declared over earlier this year.
In the past six months, we have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the day the panel was recorded, John Hopkins University was tracking over 10,000,199 cases worldwide, with a total of 502,947 deaths, for a case fatality rate of 4.9%.
Hurt said that there were several difficulties in maintain accurate testing during the COVID-19 pandemic, including transporting the testing materials to the sites where they are needed, and the necessity of a cooperative government in order to administer adequate testing. Hurt also noted that in some places, where there is a secondary cause of death – such as a co-occurring condition – that may be listed as the cause of death instead of coronavirus, thus misrepresenting the data.
Hurt explained that the point of the panel was to take the lessons that we have learned from science fiction and apply them to our pandemic response. Alternatively, how would we react and what strategies would we employ if a zombie outbreak took place in the real world? How can we plan for the unknown?
Dr. Hanson questioned whether we’ve learned anything at all from out past experiences.
“If you look back at all of these outbreaks,” said Dr. Hanson. “Not only the ones that Justin mentioned, but we’ve had multiple animal disease outbreaks that have spanned the last ten years – including coronavirus, has shown up in swine in particular but also in other species, I really don’t think we’ve learned anything thus far.”
And Dr. Hanson didn’t see anything good from our current “preparations” against COVID-19.
“What we’ve learned from COVID specifically is that this is the ultimate group project gone wrong,” said Dr. Hanson. “We can’t get people to stay home, we can’t get people to wear masks. So how do you improve on that when we really don’t have anywhere to go but up, in my opinion? We’ve really failed, especially as a country, the U.S. – we failed on a scale unimaginable a few years ago.”
Dr. Hanson emphasized that dramatic changes needed to take place.
“We all assumed things would be successful, we all assumed there would be good government strategies,” said Dr. Hanson. “And really, the question is, how did we screw up so badly as a collective? And this isn’t just across the U.S., this is across the globe. I mean, there were so many missteps along the way, and there continue to be.”
Dr. Hanson wondered whether we had learned our lesson about the necessity of preparation for a future pandemic – a lesson that comes at an estimated cost of $8 trillion in the U.S. alone.
“The other thing you have to take away from this is how little public health costs relative to the ultimate harm that can come out of it,” said Dr. Hanson.
Dr. Gronvall said biological science was the path out of the disaster.
“Every day is a biology news day, and biological science is really the only way out of this kind of mess, and so we need to support it and make sure it’s there when we need it,” said Dr. Gronvall. “The whole thing has been a disaster, like Jared said, but the science has been the most hopeful part of this. Within a couple of months we had thousands of uploaded viral sequences, we had thousands of scientific papers, and within four months, we had a hundred and sixty vaccine and therapy candidates in the pipeline, which is amazing.”
Dr. Gronvall explained that some of our advantages against COVID-19 emerged from previous pandemic situations.
“A lot of this is because of advances in science from SARS,” said Dr. Gronvall . “We now don’t need to worry about getting virus samples to researchers, they can download the sequences and work from there. Scientists are more collaborative, they are sharing their information through preprints, and that has been really successful overall (although it has some problems).”
However, there are some areas where Dr. Gronvall says we could use some improvement.
“When science hits the clinics, it slows things down,” Dr. Gronvall said. “So we need to think about ways to get faster and more efficient at that.”
Dr. Gronvall said that it may be necessary to change the way we aggregate our heath data in order to get a more complete picture of the situation. She also said that one of the complications during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the antibody testing kits, which are expensive but questionable in their accuracy.
“Science and health security expertise need to be at the highest levels of governing,” said Dr. Gronvall. “It needs to be as important as nuclear weapons to the training of people who are governing our country and they need to know what it is because of the impact it has had on our nation and our world.”
Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate, an expert in aerobiology, was asked about the pure science behind the pandemic.
“One of the things that I find is actually missing in terms of the pure science is a real appreciation for how interdisciplinary these fields really are, and how much the scientific community really needs to rely on the different disciplines to bring it all together,” said Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate. “I think you’ll very often find there are clusters of virologists who only necessarily understand the virology portion, but there is a lot of physics and chemistry and thermodynamics that’s going into a lot of the disease transmission.”
Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate said much of the progress being made on COVID-19 was emerging from these interdisciplinary frameworks.
“I’m seeing a lot of the research that’s coming out now is bringing in all of these different types of expertise to really understand what is contributing to person-to-person transmission,” said Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate. “From expulsion events to droplets and fluid dynamics, and things like that – so really trying to get to the mechanistic understanding of what really is contributing to these pathogens moving from person to person.”
Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate had some specific suggestions for the future.
“One thing that I personally think has to change from a community standpoint is that there’s so much mistrust of scientists, specifically in the U.S.,” said Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate. “I think getting to a point where we can make sure the next generation understands that the whole point of science is to help save lives and help people. We’re not here to take away people’s rights, or anything to that effect. I think being able to trust that scientists are doing the right thing and understanding what we’re doing would help a lot in terms of making the general public agree with the policy decisions that the public health officials are making.”
Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate said understanding was an essential component of the work done by scientists.
“We can put so much information out there,” said Dr. Ratnesar-Shumate, “But how is the general public then able to take that and make it meaningful to them, so that they can understand how to translate that into some way to help protect themselves and reduce their risk of exposure.”
Dr. Koblentz discussed what we should have learned and what we should not have learned from the zombie apocalypse genre.
“One of the good lessons is to expect the unexpected,” said Dr. Koblentz. “We’re not very good about predicting pandemics, they’re usually a surprise, just like your typical zombie outbreak catches everybody in the book or movie by surprise. And we’ve had a really bad track record of predicting what the next pandemic would be.”
Dr. Koblentz pointed out that in 2005, we were worried about a strain of H5N1 coming out of birds in China causing a global pandemic, and instead, in 2009, we saw a strain called H1N1 coming out of pigs in Mexico. “We just did not have our eyes on the right place,” said Dr. Koblentz.
“Also, there’s an expectation that we’re going to know the origin story of SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Koblentz said. “We’ll be able to identify when that virus went bad, when it jumped over from animals to humans, the spillover event – but I think the reality is going to be more like what we saw in The Walking Dead or World War Z, where we never really learn what the origin of the virus is that causes the zombie outbreak.”
Dr. Koblentz noted that one of the biggest threats in zombie literature isn’t actually the undead, it’s other humans – and he sees some parallels with our current situation there.
“In most zombie literature, humans are as much of a threat as zombies,” Dr. Koblentz said. “Early on, it’s because of fear and ignorance, and misinformation, disinformation. Later on, humans are a threat because it’s a matter of survival, it’s a zero sum game, and if you have what I need I’m going to take it if I can in order to survive the zombies. And I think we’re seeing patterns of that as well in terms of the international competition over resources, which really is misguided. During a global pandemic we should be seeing great power cooperation, not great power competition.”
However, Dr. Koblentz said not all the lessons we gleaned from zombies were helpful.
“A lesson I think we learned that was not helpful for our pandemic response is the idea of how visible the threat is,” said Dr. Koblentz. “Because viruses are much harder to see and fight than zombies. When you’re infected by a zombie there’s a bite mark, a very obvious indicator that you’ve been infected, it’s very easy to see the zombies coming or hear them coming from a distance away. Viruses are invisible, and as we’ve seen with SARS-CoV-2, a number of the cases are asymptomatic, so without extensive testing of everybody, even if they don’t look sick, we have no way of telling who’s actually infected and who can infect others.”
Next, the conversation turned to Brooks, the author of World War Z, who said that his research for his writing has given him some unique insight.
“As a regular schmuck who doesn’t have a doctor in front of my name, I have gotten to go deep into the halls of the smarty smarts, and listen to these amazing lectures and these symposiums about these mega-threats and these mega-trends,” said Brooks. “And then I go back to my hotel room, and it’s not on the news. And I go back to my group of friends, who I think are fairly well-educated, and no one’s ever heard of all this. And what I gathered in the decade of this work is that the biggest threat to us as a nation is the gap between the American people and those who protect them.”
Brooks has some specific ideas about how this division has had serious consequences for the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the reasons this has been such a devastating plague in the United States is it’s a generational one,” said Brooks. “If this had hit us forty years ago, there would have been enough Americans still alive and in positions of authority who still remember the dark days of polio and whopping cough, the pre-vaccine days, when virus and bacteria used to kill or cripple a large portion of our population.”
It’s a lesson Brooks wears every day: he is named after his grandfather, who died of TB when he was thirty years old, because it was pre-penicillin.
“What do we do about the fact now that you have an army of very smart, very educated (sometimes that’s not the same thing) people who know what they’re dealing with, but don’t know how to communicate it to the power base?” said Brooks. “I would quote the great Eddie Murphy, who said it’s not worth a warm bucket of hamster vomit if you can’t take this knowledge and go communicate it to your boss. And by ‘your boss’ I mean the American voter and the American taxpayer. That’s where the power is!”
Brooks does have some ideas about how to remedy the situation and ensure that the average American is able to better understand essential information regarding COVID-19, holding up a large book to illustrate his point.
“If you can’t take what’s in there and make the average American understand it,” said Brooks, “Then our leadership, our intelligentsia, our educated thinking class of people have failed. And that’s the problem! And that’s where the artist comes in, and that’s what we used to do!”
Brooks turned to history, citing President Roosevelt’s work during World War II as an example of how the United States has successfully educated the public in the past. Roosevelt’s administration found that by collaborating with Hollywood studios, it could be communicated to Americans why it was necessary to take up arms against Hitler and his fascist machine.
“So it’s all hands on deck in the mass communication department,” Brooks said. “We need to think of creative ways of distilling the essence of what [the scientists on the panel] understand, and make people like me understand why it’s worth it. Because we can do it! Even when we were all kids, we had Schoolhouse Rock. We can do that again!”
The panel also included some questions from the online audience, including one on the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy.
“The National Biodefense Strategy that came out in 2018 I think is actually a really good document,” said Dr. Koblentz. “It is very comprehensive, they have a very broad definition of what biological threats we should be worried about: everything from naturally occurring infection diseases to pandemics to bioterrorism. They incorporate the idea of ‘one health,’ the idea that animal and human health is inextricably linked, and we need to look at the animal health population if we’re going to look at protecting human health as well. And there is some good structure and organization behind it, as well.”
However, Dr. Koblentz says that in practice, serious issues arose.
“There are a few problems,” said Dr. Koblentz. “One is, no one actually implemented the strategies. The administration’s priorities were completely going the other way in terms of funding what needed to be funded under the strategy, so even before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, the strategy just wasn’t being resourced or followed in any way. And once the pandemic hit, I think that strategy was like what happened with the book that Max had: someone threw it on the floor and left it there, and has not been followed in anyway over the last several months.”
Dr. Koblentz was kind enough to respond to the @ComicsBeatLive LiveTweet of the panel with some additional resources, for those who wish to learn more about the 2018 National Biodefense Strategy, including some criticisms:
— Gregory Koblentz (@gregkoblentz) July 24, 2020
“Great document, just, it proved to be of no real use during the pandemic for political reasons,” said Dr. Koblentz during the panel.
“The National Security Strategy also had a big section about the importance of health security and how to deal with health security threats,” said Dr. Gronvall. “It’s words on paper unless you have leaders who are going to make decisions against them, and as long as they are just going to relegate it to, ‘eh, that’s what doctors and scientists do, not important,’ then it’s not going to be actually implemented.”
“After even the first World War, we used to have a wholeness of nation strategy when it came to national defense,” said Brooks. “We used to have an overall strategy about how do we prepared for big crisis.”
Brooks said that the wholeness of nation concept used to trickle down to all aspects of life, and he believes that we need to determine how to rekindle that philosophy in terms of dealing with the pandemic.
“It’s the same thing with education when it comes to viruses,” said Brooks. “You can’t gut science teachers, you can’t pay science teachers pennies and not teach kids about basic science and the scientific method and what it means to look at data when they’re little kids, and then suddenly when they’re grown-ups, expect them to learn about airborne droplet theory.”
Brooks believes that one of the ways to create a wholeness of nation is to foster trust between individuals across different disciplines and work on creating “ambassadors” to transcend the divisions created by tribalism.
“Don’t try to recruit them, recruit a recruiter,” said Brooks. “Bring a few people from that world into your world and make them ambassadors, back to their world! And say, ‘Listen, you know me, you trust me – trust me when I tell you this matters.’”
Brooks said there were specific steps that could be undertaken to remedy the situation.
“It’s the same thing in the biological defense world,” Brooks said. “If the bio world were to tap just a few more artists, and bring them in and say, ‘Listen, you’re doing a great job with your zombie TV show or your zombie books or whatever, but there’s a couple sort of basic facts that if you get right, you can really help educate the public.’ It drives me crazy when I see my fellow artists grab the American public and then have their attention and then not do anything with it!”
Brooks emphasized that history demonstrated a path forward once again: “Every episode of Star Trek had not only hard science behind it, but also a morality tale behind it. And it doesn’t take that much to get back to it, so I think more of an introduction from your world to my world at places like Comic-Con would make a huge difference.”
I did have a question that wasn’t asked during the panel’s Q&A session. In Night of the Living Dead, one of the news bulletins strongly implies that the origin of the zombies is radiation brought to Earth by a returning space probe. My question is, should our response to a pandemic change if the infection is extraterrestrial in origin?
While I’m disappointed I didn’t get a chance to ask, judging by how well people outside my window seem to be complying with the guidelines laid out by the scientists on the Zombies and Coronavirus panel, I’ll have another opportunity to ask the question during SDCC at home 2021.
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