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Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant at a market in Bupyeong, South Korea. Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant at a market in Bupyeong, South Korea, Feb. 24, 2020 (Newsis photo by Lee Jong-chul via AP Images).

The Coronavirus Outbreak Is the Shape of Things to Come

Monday, Feb. 24, 2020

The Wuhan coronavirus, now officially named COVID-19, reveals how vulnerable humanity remains to virulent pathogens. A century after the devastating Spanish flu pandemic, public health officials are scrambling to prevent this latest plague—which as of Feb. 24 had infected more than 79,000 people in at least 29 countries, most of them in China—from becoming another pandemic. As they do, it’s worth taking a step back to consider the stubborn staying power of infectious disease. Far from an anomaly, this outbreak is the shape of things to come.

Humanity is currently experiencing its fourth great wave of infectious disease. The first coincided with the agricultural revolution some 10 millennia ago. A more sedentary lifestyle, higher population density, closer proximity to domesticated animals and the appearance of parasitic species like rodents and insects in human settlements enabled more pathogens to jump between species. A second great wave began during classical antiquity and lasted through the Middle Ages, as commercial and military contact among major centers of civilization exposed formerly isolated societies to new diseases and created new vectors—rats, fleas—that spread pestilence across the Mediterranean and Asia. Between the 14th and 17th centuries alone, more than 200 million people died of bubonic plague. The third phase occurred after 1500, as explorers, conquerors and colonists from Europe brought new pathogens to the Americas, Africa and Australasia, and sometimes back again, with devastating results. ...

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