COVID-19. Should we freak out or stop freaking out? Is this the big one, a prelude to the big one, or just another one? A devastating plague or a souped-up cold or something in between? On Friday morning, two hours before the stock market opened and resumed its plunge, amid deepening fears of a global pandemic, W. Ian Lipkin, one of the world’s leading infectious-disease epidemiologists, sat in his living room, on the Upper West Side, preparing to head back into the fray. He was dressed for TV—he’d been making the rounds. “I never turn down Fox,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to preach in the wilderness.” Lipkin, who is sixty-seven, directs the Center for Infection and Immunity, at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, where attempts to develop a better diagnostic test for COVID-19 are underway. (Lab technicians have been using genetic samples, rather than the live virus, out of caution.) In January, Lipkin traveled to China to investigate the outbreak. On his return, he self-quarantined for fourteen days at the university’s request, mainly in the basement of his house (his wife left him meals at the top of the stairs), before returning to his lab. That was two weeks, more than ten thousand cases, and four thousand points on the Dow ago. Lipkin, who was the scientific consultant for the well-regarded we’re-all gonna-die film “Contagion,” moved to the city in 2000, after discovering the connection between encephalitis and the spread of West Nile virus in New York. Then came 9/11, the anthrax scare, and the creation of a national network of so-called biodefense centers. Lipkin ran the one in New York. In 2003, he went to China to help advise the government on its response to SARS, an earlier coronavirus, and since then he has traveled there every year, as part of an effort to share information and cultivate coöperation. He first heard about Covid-19 from a colleague in Guangzhou, a month before the rest of the world became aware of it. “He told me, ‘There’s some weird thing going on in Wuhan,’” Lipkin said. “On December 31st, researchers there identified it as a coronavirus but said, ‘It’s not highly transmissible.’ So much for that assessment!” He went on, “It’s going to be difficult to know who knew what when.”
Lipkin was more concerned with the virus itself: how widely it has spread, why some people get it and others don’t, how to counteract it. “The trick with all this is, it’s an arms race,” he said. “The virus is evading you. You want to make sure you keep up with it.” He added that he was “cautiously optimistic” that citizens and governments will now be more careful, and that we can accelerate the development of drugs and a vaccine. Still, he said, “things are going to get shut down. And this virus is probably going to be with us for some time to come. It might become endemic, like measles.” He is reticent, at least for the record, about the Trump Administration’s handling of the crisis, the wisdom of staging the Olympics in Japan, and the panic seizing global equity markets. He said that he has consulting gigs with several corporations, and talks regularly with chief executives: “I’ve gotten a lot of calls. A lot of them really just want to protect their employees and customers. There’s the other kind, too, who want me to call them fifteen minutes before, say, the federal government announces that it’s going to shut down all the bridges and tunnels in and out of Manhattan.” It has been determined that the virus is present in human feces. In Asia, Lipkin noted, the plumbing in many kitchens and bathrooms does not include a Utrap—the bend in a pipe that fills with standing water, which in turn blocks polluted air from rising from the sewers. “How long is it in feces?” he asked. “How long is it in the mouth and the nose? How long is it on surfaces? On buckles, seat belts, doorknobs, touch screens, or the TV remote in a hotel room, which, by the way, never gets cleaned and is one of the filthiest things on the planet.” Though not a germaphobe by nature, he’d been converted by the job. At 9 a.m., he set out for work wearing a pair of lightbrown gloves. “I call them subway condoms,” he said. “I use gloves everywhere. I don’t touch my face. If I see someone coughing or sneezing, I keep my distance. On airplanes, I wipe everything down. I stay away from bowls of mixed nuts or candy.” He told a story of visiting a temple in Bhubaneswar, India, and having a monkey jump on his back and stick a finger in his mouth: “Twentyfour hours later, riproaring diarrhea.” On Central Park West, he pointed out a painted railing and said, “That, I wouldn’t worry about. You’ve got ultraviolet light, wind.” But on the C train, he wrapped an elbow around a pole and said, “I look at the world differently than you do. I see
surfaces in a pointillistic fashion.” When he arrived at the Mailman building, on 168th Street, he used a knuckle to press a button in the elevator and then put his gloves back on to open his office door. In eleven minutes, he had a meeting with two people who had identified themselves only as “members of U.S. intelligence.” “I don’t know why they want to talk to me, but they do,” he said. In farewell, he gave his guest an N95 mask and a pair of rubber gloves and offered up a forearm for a firm Roman handshake.
Source: The New Yorker Magzine March 2020
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