May 8, 2020

Covid-19 and the A-Bomb: Chain Reactions That Kill

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

Actually they really do have a lot in common, certain viruses such as COVID-19 (or Coronavirus) and atomic bombs. Chain reactions inherent in nuclear weapons and viral chain reactions both kill lots of people.

It is estimated that in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined, about 225,000 people died as a result of the chain reactions that took place in a nanosecond within the atomic bombs dropped on those cities to bring WWII to an end. By the time this essay is released, just about 300,000 people, worldwide, will have died from the Covid-19 chain reaction. Given that the victims of both are equally dead, the only real difference is that the deaths mount up a lot slower from viruses than from A-bombs, and it is, most definitely, easier to stop the chain reaction of a killer virus than it is to stop the chain reaction in a killer atomic bomb. But, let’s be serious, both atomic bombs and viruses kill lots of people and, well, dead is dead.

In an atomic bomb, a single free neutron (a smaller-than-atom sized particle) strikes the nucleus of an atom of uranium or plutonium, causing that atom to split, producing more neutron particles that go on to strike other atoms and neutrons, thereby releasing an unimaginable burst of energy and, faster than you can say “coronavirus,” the walls come tumbling down. And so it is (the chain reaction) with the COVID-19 pandemic with which we and the rest of the world are now contending.

In an epidemic, contagion is nothing more than a chain reaction that grows exponentially as each infected person passes the infection on to a plurality of other previously uninfected people. They, in turn, having become infected, pass the infection on to more previously uninfected people, and so on until the contagion is stopped, or until almost everybody is either sick, dead, or, fortunately, immune.

The rate of pass-along infection is referred to by epidemiologists as the R0, (pronounced R naught) or the Reproduction Number. In the case of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the R0 is estimated to be between 2.5 and 3.0. That’s bad. It means each infected person is infecting between two and three other people who obligingly go on to do the same thing to two or three more people. The contagion dies out when steps are taken to reduce the R0 to 1.0 or less.

Now, the R0 can and does change either up or down. Cities with high population densities, such as New York, Milan, Tokyo, or Wuhan have a higher R0 simply because everybody comes in contact with more people than in other cities. Quarantining, on the other hand, reduces the R0 because the potential for contact and, therefore, pass along contagion is reduced. Social mingling, conversely, increases the R0 during an epidemic.

Think, for a moment, of a nuclear power plant. Steam to turn turbines and produce electricity is generated by inserting nuclear fuel rods into a huge vat of water (the core of the plant). A chain reaction is initiated which produces tremendous energy that heats the water to temperature (about 520 degrees Fahrenheit) sufficient to produce the steam which in turn powers the turbines. The chain reaction is, however, carefully regulated with control rods (consisting of neutron-absorbing materials such as boron) which are inserted into the core. That’s why the fuel rods heat the water, but don’t melt the entire plant.

And so it is with controlling a pandemic such as COVID-19. There is a viral chain reaction taking place in America and in almost every country in the world. But just as a nuclear chain reaction is modified with control rods, nations can similarly modify the COVID-19 chain reaction using self-quarantining and social distancing as sort of a viral control rod.

Until we have either a vaccination or a medicinal therapy, quarantining and social distancing are really the only means we have to dampen the spread of this coronavirus. The only other alternative is to accept that the fittest will survive (although many survivors of all ages will carry lifelong aftereffects as a result of COVID-19). Remember, this is a novel coronavirus. Mankind has never seen it before, and we are learning more every week about the toll it takes on various organs and systems within the human body, and none of it is good.

It is possible, but not probable, that the heat and bright UV light of summer will stop the virus dead in its tracks. This virus, however, has been spreading in places that are in summer. A new report from the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine warns, “warm weather will not stop the virus from spreading.” The problem is that when it is summer in one place it is cool in another, and transmission will travel with people from one geographic area to another. Also, the virus has been thoroughly seeded indoors as well as outdoors, and if people come and go indoors and outdoors, the likelihood of continued spread is still high.

Less densely populated areas may not, initially, suffer the same rate of contagion as areas with greater population density, but, assuming those areas will see travelers come and go, it is only a matter of time before the viral chain reaction reaches into less densely populated areas too.

 In the absence of a vaccine or an effective drug therapy, COVID-19, it appears, is not going anywhere anytime soon, notwithstanding pronouncements from on high that it will miraculously disappear or soon just drop to zero. We have to starve the beast until a vaccine or drug is available, and we can only do that by interrupting the chain reaction that keeps it going.

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7 responses to “Covid-19 and the A-Bomb: Chain Reactions That Kill”

  1. Frank Marshall says:

    See the latest reports on masks. If 80% of people wore masks, the spread dynamic change and spread is reduced by 90% but the mask density must happen by the 50th day to have an impact. We are there. Wearing masks now should be mandatory. They did this in Japan with very positive results.

  2. Paul Lubar says:

    The death rate from COVID-19 is very low in young people (2 per 1,000 of those diagnosed) and the rate only becomes significant in older people with comorbidities. ( 65 or 70 and older). Those who are vulnerable should be cautious but the rest of the population needs to develop herd immunity. Flattening the curve does not mean fewer will be infected. The same number will contract the illness but over a longer time. Waiting for a vaccine or therapy could work but if none is available in the near term we cannot shut done the economy indefinitely. This type of treatment is likely to turn out to be worse than the disease.

    • RESPONSE TO PAUL LUBAR: WE AGREE. THE SHUTDOWN IS A VIABLE RESPONSE TO THE PANDEMIC ONLY IF A VACCINE OR THERAPY IS FORTHCOMING WITHIN A REASONABLE PERIOD OF TIME. THE DETERMINATION OF “REASONABLE,” OF COURSE, IS AND WILL REMAIN HIGHLY DEBATABLE.

  3. qua says:

    Equating Atomic blast deaths and virus deaths is of course
    problematic. In the case of Atomic bomb blasts actually saved
    many American lives.

    The virus deaths whether deliberate or not is a wake up call
    to be more self sufficient in both treatment, prevention and
    to begin reliance on American industry.
    Not too hard to blame one country for it’s initial spread.
    Let’s focus on getting to the source of the outbreak as well as
    the cure in order to stem future virus contamination.

    • RESPONSE TO QUA: THE COMPARISON IS NOT, IN OUR JUDGMENT, PROBLEMATIC. THE POINT OF THE ESSAY IS THAT A-BOMB EXPLOSIONS AND PANDEMICS ARE BOTH CAUSED BY CHAIN REACTIONS. THAT THE ATOMIC BOMB BROUGHT THE SECOND WORLD WAR TO A CLOSE AND SAVED MANY LIVES (AMERICAN AND, IRONICALLY, JAPANESE) IS BOTH ACCURATE BUT IRRELEVANT TO THE POINT OF THE ESSAY.

  4. ted goldman says:

    Sweden appears to have dealt with this Chinese virus without
    destroying its’ economy thru herd immunity, not isolation.

    Many more people will suffer and die from the ill-considered approach currently used.

    Open the economy, protect the most vulnerable, resume
    normal life as rapidly as possible, and stop the unwise fear mongering.

    • RESPONSE TO MR. GOLDMAN: MR. GOLDMAN PRESENTS A REASONABLE ALTERNATIVE POINT OF VIEW. WE WOULD POINT OUT, HOWEVER, THAT SWEDEN’S DEATH RATE AMONG THOSE WHO HAVE CONTRACTED CORONAVIRUS IS 50% HIGHER THAN THE US DEATH RATE. IF THE DEATH RATE AMONG CORONAVIRUS VICTIMS IN THE US WERE THE SAME AS SWEDEN’S WE WOULD HAVE OVER 91,000 DEATHS AT THIS POINT WHICH, NO DOUBT, WOULD BE ACCEPTABLE TO MANY PEOPLE. MR. GOLDMAN’S CONTENTION THAT “MANY MORE PEOPLE” WILL DIE FROM THE CURRENT APPROACH IN THE UNITED STATES IS, OF COURSE, CONJECTURE. FINALLY, SPEAKING OR WRITING ABOUT THE POTENTIAL CONSEQUENCES OF PREMATURE SOCIETAL AND BUSINESS OPENING IS NOT FEAR MONGERING. OPENING THE ECONOMY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE IS ESSENTIAL. RECOGNIZING THE RISK IS ALSO ESSENTIAL.

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