Fighting the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has not gone well. If you’re a political junkie, this pandemic’s spread has demonstrated the failure of political leadership – not shutting down travel early enough, dismantling the pandemic office, not invoking the defense authorization act, not putting a national mask-mandate in place, and generally not believing in medical science.
However, there is an alternative explanation than a simple left-right narrative. Political solutions fail to account for American culture. Using social controls, like social distancing and mask use, to slow the spread of the virus until we find the vaccine has two glaring problems.
First, Americans are not good at following rules. The countries that have been the most successful at fighting Covid-19 follow the rules—either by a government willing to enforce strict rules, like China, or have strong cultural norms, like South Korea, Japan and northern Europe.
Second, the strategy is based on detecting who is infected and creating a highly effective vaccine. This usually requires having a one to two-year advanced notice that the virus is coming in order to develop low-cost effective testing strategies and vaccines. This strategy ignores the fact that vaccines are not that good for viruses because viruses evolve around vaccine defenses. And this coronavirus is particularly adaptive.
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That is why we have yearly flu shots with an effectiveness between 20% and 60%.
But there is an older solution, one discussed by nuclear engineer Charles Forsberg at MIT. Water-borne epidemics have been stopped over the last hundred years by building clean water and sewer systems. Malaria has been slowed by killing mosquitos that transmit the disease to humans through draining stagnant water, by using window screens and insecticides or rendering them infertile using low levels of radiation.
Engineering solutions are responsible for stopping most pandemics and most of the increases in life expectancies. Engineering solutions to contaminated water did not require social controls such as everyone boiling water before drinking it. Medicines, other medical treatments and vaccines become the backup squad, which is something they’re good at.
Today we have SARS-CoV-2 in its ideal environmental niche that we created for this virus. It was just a question of when such an effective air-borne virus would find its home.
SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne virus transmitted from person to person. Thus, how fast the disease spreads depends upon how many people an infected person comes in contact with. If the disease multiplication rate is above one, a pandemic occurs because more than one person catches the disease for every person with the disease.
From the viewpoint of the virus, a single person going to work in New York City via bus, subway and elevator can infect more people in one trip than a person commuting by car to a one or two story office building or factory will meet in a week. For a virus aboard mass transit, every day is party day at the bar because people are crowed together face to face – maximizing disease transmission from one person to the next.
For air-borne viruses, we have created the equivalent of cities with contaminated water and sewage running down the streets. It’s a safe bet this will not be the last virus to find this environmental niche and take advantage of it. In addition, this virus exchanges genetic material with just about anything that is alive and is likely to pass on its talents to other air-borne pathogens.
So an engineering fix is needed – clean filtered air so we do not breath in each other’s mucosal particles. The solution does not need to be perfect. It just needs to get the multiplication rate of the virus below one.
It’s no secret how the virus spreads. Air goes horizontally between people, e.g., the loading ramp between an airplane and the terminal at airports, from the front of the bus or subway car backward, or down the school hallway. We need filtered air that goes up or down so we each have our own clean air supply in crowded environments and stop breathing each other’s air.
This is not rocket science. Many factories generate hazardous gases but workers are safe a few feet away because of how the ventilation systems are designed to pull hazardous air away from people. There are short-term and long-term solutions. At airports and shopping malls one could install kiosks, each with filters and a fan. Air comes in at the top near the ceiling, through a filter, through a fan and horizontally out at floor level.
Circulate all the air in the room through filters every few minutes. Airport loading ramps need filtered air going up or down – not going horizontally and spreading the virus as the passengers go from terminal to aircraft. Airplanes already have filters that stop viruses, but the ventilation is designed to mix air over several rows of seats. Cabin mockups have shown how to supply clean filtered air to every passenger with filtered air entering under the seat and exiting above each seat.
Engineering solutions have three significant advantages: (1) they work against all air-borne diseases and not just this particular virus, (2) you do not need to know a year in advance what virus is coming to develop a test and vaccine and (3) tight social controls are not needed, something that this pandemic demonstrated as incompatible with American culture.
And again, a perfect solution is not required. Just reduce the transmission rate between people so less than one new person is infected for every person that has been infected.
Once one begins to think about engineering solutions, much of what has happened becomes clear. While the virus first showed up in Washington State, it did not explode. This is partly because of a competent state government and the fact that pandemics reflect local cultures. If people came from Japan or northern Europe, the cultural influence a century later still exists.
However, equally important is that people do not spend as much time breathing each other’s air. The Seattle area has more cars with limited mass transit, more private housing and lower population densities than New York. Furthermore, thanks to the mild climate, many of the condos and apartment buildings have exterior doors for every condo or apartment – no interior hallways, elevators or whole-building ventilation systems to spread the virus between people.
By accident, Seattle has built-in engineering barriers to air-borne viruses. In contrast, New York City mass transit (buses, subways, elevators), crowded bars and vertical housing is the perfect breeding ground for an air-borne virus.
It’s time to stop operating the open-air equivalent of untreated sewage flowing down the middle of the street. Engineering solutions can bring this pandemic and all future air-borne pandemics down to size. Then the medical community can cleanup what remains. Demanding such changes now is no different than what we did over a 100 years ago when we decided to build water treatment plants and sewer lines.