The coronavirus epidemic is spreading from China into other countries, so here is what life extensionists should know about this situation and how they should handle it.
A few months ago, we interviewed Dr. Jay S. Olshansky, a leading demographer from the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose areas of interest include forecasts of how the structure of mortality changes over time in relation to population aging and other factors. What struck me back then was that Dr. Olshansky mentioned that after experiencing the growth of morbidity and mortality from age-related diseases, we’re going to see a fifth stage of the epidemiologic transition, which is characterized by the rise and re-emergence of infectious diseases. He argued that, as we get the ability to transport pathogens across the globe in a matter of hours, we basically set ourselves up for explosive epidemics that can undermine our efforts to extend human life.
The recent developments in China seem to be in line with these warnings. The first cases of the new 2019-nCoV coronavirus appeared in December 2019, and by now, according to the official statistics, over 6000 people are ill and over 130 are reported dead, while 110 people have managed to recover. Several Chinese regions are under quarantine. WHO claims that there are no grounds for panic, and the global community is undertaking an adequate amount of effort to stop the epidemic. However, as we will most likely see more outbreaks like this one in the future, let’s discuss what we can do to reduce the risks of dying from infectious diseases even before rejuvenation research puts an end to aging.
In my recent talk at Biohacking Conference Moscow, I touched upon a somewhat unusual topic. I told the audience that to live to 150 years, I personally need to somehow get alive to 2129. However, during this very long life, I will obviously face at least the following seven global crises:
- Population aging and economic issues related to it
- Drug resistance and insufficiency of drug production
- Climate change and related mass migration and change in morbidity
- Ecology issues, including the poisoning of food and water
- Economic inequality
- Population growth
- Food crisis
Crisis does not necessarily mean a bad thing. In most cases, crisis opens opportunities for positive changes, too. However, because these seven issues are affecting our society at once, they can lead to destabilization on such a scale that our hopes for healthy life extension will be undermined. A healthy lifestyle and senolytics can’t counteract bushfires, economic crises, and anthropogenic catastrophes caused by poor education. Averting of these global problems, apart from technological solutions, requires sophisticated social technologies, cooperation, and cross-border coordination. I told the audience at the conference that everyone who is dreaming of celebrating the year 2100 has to work on reducing known global risks.
What can life extensionists do to reduce the risks of epidemics of infectious diseases?
Corporate social responsibility
It is not a secret that the creation of new antibiotics, antifungal medicines and vaccines currently represents a challenge. Unlike drugs for chronic conditions, medicines to prevent and treat infections are usually taken for only a few days, which does not generate the flow of income that would be proportional to the resources that the producer has invested into developing them. Drug resistance represents the other modus of the problem. As pathogens evolve, existing medicines become ineffective and people stop using them, reducing the income of the producers even more. Pharmaceutical giants like Novartis are abandoning the sector, and antibiotic startups are showing less and less activity. Last year, this situation caused the United Nations’ Interagency Coordination Group (IACG) on Antimicrobial Resistance to make a strong call to action in its report:
There is no time to wait. Unless the world acts urgently, antimicrobial resistance will have disastrous impact within a generation.
Drug-resistant diseases already cause at least 700,000 deaths globally a year, including 230,000 deaths from multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, a figure that could increase to 10 million deaths globally per year by 2050 under the most alarming scenario if no action is taken. Around 2.4 million people could die in high-income countries between 2015 and 2050 without a sustained effort to contain antimicrobial resistance.
The recommended responses include the improvement of sanitation, hygiene and access to clean water in the least developed countries to prevent people from getting sick, responsible and controlled use of existing drugs for human, animal and plant health, promoting innovation in drug R&D, and public education.
However, funding for R&D remains the biggest problem when it comes to vaccines and new antibiotics. The Ebola crisis of 2013-2016 was quite illustrative. During that crisis, Ebola has infected around 30 thousand people and claimed 11,323 lives in the epicenter of the outbreak. The global community was aware of the existence of Ebola and the risks of its spreading long before that (Ebola was first identified in 1976), but it is only after several cases in Spain, the UK, and the USA that corporations and large charity organizations provided adequate support for developing a vaccine.
I want to believe that the lesson has been learned. A substantial amount of funding has been already allocated to cope with the crisis in China and develop a vaccine against the new 2019-nCoV coronavirus. Some companies claim that they will try to get it into clinical trials in 16 weeks.
Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, founder and CEO of Insilico Medicine, the company developing AI for drug discovery and medical diagnostics, calls for finding promising treatments that would help people who are already sick recover faster:
While priority is being given to vaccines and repurposing of old drugs, generative artificial intelligence may help accelerate the drug design process and come up with novel inhibitors for some of the key 2019-nCoV targets. We can not wait and see how the country we love so dearly suffers, and we have allocated substantial computational and human resources to attempt the generation of new molecules using the limited data we have available. This outbreak highlights the need for investment into biotechnology and medicine.
Meanwhile, the global community is undertaking unprecedented measures to limit the spreading of the disease. Several countries have closed their borders with China and are limiting transportation and tourist activities to prevent infections. China itself is acting highly responsibly, with several cities under quarantine, a strong set of instructions given to the public, and hospitals doing everything they can to provide diagnostics and medical help.
Sadly, apart from the epicenter in Wuhan, China, cases of this new coronavirus have already been reported in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the United States, Canada, Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka. France, Australia, Malaysia, and Germany. I hope that these and other countries will be as brave and resolute as China in defending their populations and the global community from this danger.
The main route of transmission of the coronavirus is airborne, from one person to another. There are three things that a life extensionist can and probably should be doing personally to prevent and counteract such an epidemic.
Pathogens causing infectious diseases like poliomyelitis and smallpox are always present in the environment. The main measure that is protecting people from them is the so-called herd immunity. When the number of vaccinated people is high, the chain of infection is easily disrupted, which limits the spreading of the disease. The more contagious the disease, the more vaccination that is required to establish herd immunity. For instance, in order to prevent the spread of measles, 90-95% of the population has to be vaccinated against it.
Vaccination, like any other medical intervention, requires thoughtful and careful use. There are medical counterindications that have to be taken into account; individual adverse reactions are always a possibility, so one has to avoid vaccination when already suffering from certain infectious diseases. On the other hand, the latest research indicates that some vaccines, apart from their direct effect, are providing additional benefits in mitigating age-related diseases – for instance, the commonly used Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine was recently found to be able to lower the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in a certain group of patients.
If the vaccine for 2019-nCoV coronavirus will indeed appear soon, we should consider using it to protect ourselves and our families and to maintain herd immunity until the epidemic is over.
Second, high compliance and responsible behavior during the illness.
Sick people and also people who are not exhibiting obvious symptoms but are nevertheless carriers of the pathogen represent a threat to their family and community alike. One has to realize that connivance is harmful.
As a recent survivor of another type of atypical pneumonia, I had to engage in a very robust activity to prevent transmission of the disease to my family.
Once I realized that I am sick and it’s very serious, I put aside my cutlery and crockery, asked my family members to stay away from me, put on a protective mask, isolated myself, held my breath and refrained from coughing as much as possible in social spaces such as the kitchen, and arranged ventilation to separate the circulation of air in my room from the rest of the apartment. I meticulously followed instructions from my doctor.
I postponed all my meetings during the disease, canceled my talks at conferences and on the radio (still feeling bad for causing trouble for many people whose plans were ruined…), and warned my friends and family members living elsewhere that our home would be under quarantine until my temperature stayed normal for at least three days in a row. I ended up keeping things this way for over a month until the third course of antibiotics finally worked and the infection was clearly suppressed. While these measures may look excessive, none of my family members and friends have fallen ill, despite the identified pathogen being very contagious. Wherever I got pneumonia from, I contained its spread effectively.
Being responsible is even more important when a disease is highly lethal (in the very first scientific paper on the 2019-nCoV coronavirus, 15% of patients were reported dead, but this number will likely be reduced over time).
I spoke about rational ways to get prepared for an epidemic with Alexey Turchin, futurologist, expert on global risks and author of Roadmaps about global risks prevention. Here is what he said:
Firstly, we all should act in a way that would be good if everybody would act in the same way. For example, panic evacuation is not good, as if everybody starts running away, as has just happened in Wuhan, this will only increase the dissemination of the virus. Thus, the best approach is to stay at home self-isolated, reduce outside contacts, wear protective gear (mask, goggles, gloves), and keep hands clean. UV lamps may help in the disinfection of personal belongings and spaces.
It is also good to invest in improving one’s immune system with healthy food, vitamins, good sleep, and light therapy, as our immunity is our best protection against the virus. Evacuation into a cold country house and other sudden lifestyle changes would weaken the immune system, so it is better to stay at home.
It is probably reasonable to collect a one-month supply of food, water, and other essentials in advance, as the possible pandemic may affect food manufacturing and delivery. Wholesale buying will also minimize the future need to go outside, so it will reduce the risks of getting infected by people at the store.
Third, public health advocacy.
It is, of course, important to understand how our lifespans depend on the combination of cures for aging and a friendly and health-promoting environment. It is important to foster the development of innovative drugs and therapies for all possible diseases. However, there is also a factor that in my view is absolutely critical when it comes to sudden epidemics like the one in China. It is the willingness of already well-informed people to educate others.
When it comes to global risks, there is one aspect that is often underestimated. In most cases, dangerous events don’t have identical precedents, so there are no clear instructions on how to cope with them in a productive way. We always play by ear in these cases. This is why it is extremely important to keep track of outbreak statistics and share local officials’ instructions for preventing the spread of the virus with your family, friends, and co-workers. This is why coordinated mass action is necessary.
After accumulating a certain amount of concern, longevity thought leaders and science popularizers have started to share their views on social media. They are trying to abstain from discussing the rumored bioweapon origins of the virus and route of transmission; instead, they are focusing on facts and instructions that have to be known by their followers. My sense of responsibility urges me to do the same. I think the best you can do is to keep track of the statistics and, in case things heat up, get ready to counteract the epidemic in the most rational way possible.
Stay safe and live long.