WASHINGTON – World War Two and the Vietnam War led to much talk of the Second World War’s impact on Americans. Now, in a strange twist, for the past 20 years, the COVID-19 flu pandemic has had much more of an impact on us, because we never knew how serious it was. The World Health Organization reported a lower death toll of 18,000 from COVID-19 than the average death rate of 19,636 per year during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19.
This begs the question: What should we have known about the COVID-19 flu pandemic two decades ago? It is no surprise, given that data weren’t readily available then. But with the help of some of the most thorough epidemiologists at the CDC, and access to certain CDC databases that the WHO didn’t have at the time, we know more about the COVID-19 flu pandemic than I’d imagined possible.
Two key factors helped to get the ball rolling. The first was a routine reference to COVID-19 by the CDC in 1980. Back then, the United States was fresh off of two large, devastating influenza pandemics, both of which had decimated populations. We were eager to learn whether a pandemic could be so much worse, because we wanted to have some means of reducing the effect.
The second factor was the English-speaking world’s access to CDC data, which were reported to COVID-19 researchers, who were then able to summarize and rebut any number of pieces of questionable information offered by xenophobic and unhelpful people. The most widely cited piece of information offered by xenophobes, for example, was that COVID-19 had been less deadly than all other pandemics, including the Spanish Flu.
Let’s walk through both of these issues in some detail. First, we need to look at COVID-19 because, frankly, no one should be surprised that it didn’t have a severe impact. COVID-19 was the first influenza pandemic in which one particular strain had been identified as influenza A, but we had known its strain well beforehand. When it was found in humans, there were only two consequences. First, the strain spread quickly around the world. It took the WHO three weeks to get information back to the affected populations that all influenza A strains were distinct. Second, in its transmission path, COVID-19 spread primarily in tropical and subtropical countries where many people suffer from malaria. Intermittent transmission had minimal to no effect on people in more temperate zones of the world.
Right now, there is a debate about whether COVID-19 was worse than all the influenza A sequences in the world before the second Spanish Flu pandemic, or whether it was worse than all of the influenza A sequences in the world after the second Spanish Flu pandemic. For example, some believe that COVID-19 was worse than the French Soldier strain of A, which gave rise to the Spanish flu, and some believe it was worse than the strain of A in 1918-19, which gave rise to the British Soldier strain of A. Both can be found in the current influenza A strain making people ill today.
For us, this is too complicated a discussion to boil down to single components of COVID-19. For one thing, COVID-19 isn’t a new flu strain. It’s a flu strain that we knew about, already. Second, COVID-19 didn’t cause the 1918 Spanish Flu. It had nothing to do with that pandemic. The Spanish Flu was inextricably linked to the Spanish Flu virus, the second pandemic strain that has since become known as the Spanish flu, and the American flu strain – known as the American Pathogen