Why corona’s not catching on

Thanks to science, there will be no zombie apocalypse. As every zombie-phile knows, the condition arises from being infected by others. It seems we have become rather good at containing infectious diseases.

London is playing host to a newly identified virus – possibly even two – but no one is panicking. One arrived courtesy of a seriously ill Qatari man brought over for treatment. Scientists sent the other. We aren’t yet sure they are exactly the same type of “coronavirus”; that’s why we imported the second sample, taken from a Saudi man it killed.

There are six known types of human coronavirus. Four of them will do nothing worse than give you a common cold. Another is this new one. Clearly, it is highly dangerous but it has killed only one person that we know of.

The final type is known as Sars. This killed more than 900 people during an outbreak that started in
2002. That the new virus has been identified so fast shows we have learned our lesson. After Sars, the
European Commission set up a network that would allow doctors to flag up unusual respiratory disease symptoms with researchers equipped to perform rapid analysis on the pathogen responsible. Sars killed a large number of people before we identified the virus. Thanks to the EMPERIE network, we seem to have caught this coronavirus early and can take precautions to limit its spread.

The bad news is, it’s the non-communicable diseases that are more likely to kill you. Threats such as cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes account for 63 per cent of global deaths. In September last year, the World Health Organisation held a conference on the threat of non-communicable diseases and what could be done about it. In July, it announced its intention to reduce your chances of dying from one of them by 25 per cent. The only thing that’s missing is a strategy to make it happen.

Researchers were recently digesting a special issue of the journal Science, dedicated to the problem. It’s clear that many killer diseases can be controlled with a good diet, plenty of physical exercise and cutting alcohol and tobacco use. Other factors are not so easy to pin down, however.

The wonder drug aspirin, for instance, is still not the undisputed champion of world health. It is useful in preventing heart attacks and strokes but also causes life-threatening stomach bleeds in some people. Claims that it helps prevent cancer are rock solid but it doesn’t work miracles for everyone. And it doesn’t help that we are completely clueless as to how aspirin might work against cancer – there are several competing theories and nothing to choose between them.

Walking on sunshine

Vitamin D is another miracle medication that is giving us mixed messages. A growing number of scientists see this molecule as a potent force against infections such as influenza and the common cold, diabetes, cancer, asthma and heart disease. Before you rush out for supplements, though, it’s worth noting that not every scientist is a believer in mass medication.

We don’t know, for instance, whether Vitamin D deficiency in those suffering disease is the cause or merely a by-product of other deficiencies. Besides, 90 per cent of the Vitamin D in your body is made through exposing the skin to sunshine. So if you want to reap the benefits of Vitamin D, whatever they turn out to be, you should probably just get out more. When you do, bearing in mind that scientific results are rarely as bulletproof as we’d like, it’s still worth keeping an eye out for zombies.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99).

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special