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The guy who helped eradicate smallpox has something to say about coronavirus

Published Jul 23rd, 2020 5:19PM EDT
Coronavirus update
Image: Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Chicago Sun-Times via AP

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  • On the surface, the latest coronavirus update we have continues the grim trend, with more than 15 million coronavirus cases now having been confirmed worldwide.
  • Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, a doctor who helped eradicate smallpox, has given a new interview that gives a comprehensive, detailed assessment of where we are at this stage of the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Bottom line: The news is not all bad, and there is some reason for optimism.

There is so much bad news out there and so many breathless headlines stemming from the coronavirus pandemic that jockey for our attention each day that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the enormity of what’s happening right now. Even simple, factual assertions from respected health sources like White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, including his belief that the coronavirus probably won’t ever be completely eradicated from the globe — it’s just one more in a stream of crushing news items, especially when the virus is surging all around the country, the rest of the world is looking on dismayed, and there’s not much of a light at the end of the tunnel at the moment.

It’s healthy to actually stop as much as possible and remind yourself of the good news right now, though, because it’s not all bad, believe it or not. For example, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the flu has basically been wiped out in the Southern Hemisphere. Why? The reason is obvious, when you think about it — the preventative measures people are using to protect themselves against the coronavirus also keep you safe from the flu. (Of course, things can just as easily move the other way. Experts now see coronavirus cases and the flu following parallel trajectories, but that also means if an area eases way up on coronavirus mitigation, that could open the door for more flu cases).

Meanwhile, epidemiologist Larry Brilliant has been something of a breath of fresh air, in my opinion, because he’s been a source of something we haven’t gotten near enough of since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, barring a few exceptions including Dr. Fauci: Straight talk, from an authoritative source, mixing the unvarnished and uncomfortable truth with reasons to feel hopeful.

He shared some of the latter during an appearance on In the Bubble, the podcast from former Obama health official Andy Slavitt. “We are facing a really bad coronavirus,” Brilliant says in the clip below, before cautioning: “It’s just a virus. It’s just a sack of RNA, surrounded by a bunch of fat, and it has no intentionality … We are smarter than it is. Our science is better than it is.” We will “kick it into the dustbin of history” he adds, “when we gather our wits about us.”

Wired, meanwhile, caught up with Brilliant (who the magazine describes as “the doctor who helped defeat smallpox, in addition to him having been an advisor on the 2011 movie Contagion — more on that in a moment) for an interview that everyone owes it to themselves to read. It’s available here.

On the one hand, he says he wouldn’t be surprised if we get to more than 2 million deaths worldwide from the coronavirus (we’re at a little more than 625,000 as of the time of this writing). On the other hand, Brilliant tells Wired: “You can be really optimistic that science is moving at a pace unknown before. Just as the virus is growing exponentially, science is growing exponentially. MIT has recorded over 20,000 scientific papers that are on the virus. We have taken a page out of Silicon Valley, and we are exchanging money for speed. And we are doing things now in parallel instead of in sequence.”

On whether he opens package deliveries at home right away or quarantines them for fear of the virus: “If you look at the things that we worried about, like the Amazon box that comes to the door, the fact that the virus can do that doesn’t mean it does do that. I don’t scrub my groceries at all. If an Amazon box comes, I open it right away. I’m mostly worried about face-to-face transmission …”

Strangely enough, Brilliant added that two of his friends who worked on the Contagion movie got coronavirus. One of them was a senior scientist advising on the movie, and the other was the screenwriter. Lots more fascinating tidbits like that in the Wired interview above.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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