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Three years after COVID-19 started, scientists have learned valuable lessons


January 30, 2020, three years ago, World Health officials made a historic announcement about COVID. They declared it an international emergency. It made the news all over the world including right here.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There are now around 10,000 cases of the virus, and that's in just two months. Here in the U.S., federal health officials have identified a sixth case.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This outbreak is just in its early stages, and they expect it to get a lot worse before it gets better.

SIMON: And clearly, things did get a lot worse before they got better. NPR's global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Let's look back. It was clear January 2020 the world and the U.S. didn't really realize how dangerous this new coronavirus was, did we?

DOUCLEFF: No, not at all. You know, at the time, many health officials still didn't think COVID was a threat to the world. And yet we were less than two months away from a shutdown here in the U.S. For example, back in January 2020, the U.S. government thought it was enough to prepare for the outbreak by setting up an extra 1,000 beds. And officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were saying that the flu was a much bigger problem. So, yeah, there was definitely an underestimate of what was about to come. And U.S. government officials thought we could keep the virus out of this country.

SIMON: How do we assess three years later what the global impact of COVID has been?

DOUCLEFF: You know, Scott, the numbers are almost unbelievable. Scientists estimate that about 20 million people have died worldwide, which means COVID was among the biggest killers globally each of the past three years. In the U.S., at least 1.2 million people have died of COVID. I was talking to Yea-Hung Chen about these numbers. He's an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco. He says in the U.S., there is much inequality in COVID's impact. Some places have been just devastated by COVID.

YEA-HUNG CHEN: There are neighborhoods and communities in the U.S. where you have COVID deaths maybe every three homes. It's just been numbingly awful.

DOUCLEFF: And so, really, all together, this means COVID has been one of the worst pandemics in centuries.

SIMON: Let's talk about what we've learned about prevention - stopping or minimizing future pandemics. Have our chances of doing better next time improved?

DOUCLEFF: You know, I think they have. I think we are a bit better prepared. You know, the development of the mRNA vaccines, like the ones that Pfizer and Moderna make, you know, those allow scientists to create new vaccines much more quickly. And also, scientists have made a huge leap in understanding how these pandemics begin and where deadly viruses come from in the first place. And that is really changing their approach to prevent big outbreaks.

SIMON: And I know you've spoken with scientists, and you have some more reporting coming up. Can you give us the gist of what you've learned?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. You know, the big change is about what's called spillovers. That's when animal viruses jump into people and make them sick, which is how most of these outbreaks begin. For decades, scientists thought these spillovers were extremely rare. But what they're realizing - and this is pretty radical - is that these spillovers are happening all the time, every day, all over the world. By some calculations, one happens something like every eight minutes. One scientist told me you can think of these spillovers like snow falling across humanity.

SIMON: That's incredibly chilling to hear.

DOUCLEFF: You know, it is. And in fact, this is a subject of a new series NPR's launching called Hidden Viruses. And it's about the new science of hunting these spillover viruses. It turns out these constant spillovers, most of the viruses haven't made that final leap and become super infectious. So if you think about it, in some ways, this is good news because it means there's a window of time, or window of opportunity, for finding these viruses before they go global. And what scientists used to do was to look for new viruses inside animals like bats. But now that they realize these viruses are jumping so frequently into people, they can look for new viruses inside people who are getting infected and find them before they make that final leap and become super infectious.

SIMON: NPR's global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff, thanks so much for joining us.

DOUCLEFF: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.