April 18, 2003
Fear Of SARS Makes Beijing Appear Deserted

The fear of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome is causing an increasingly panicked response in Beijing China.

At Bank of China branches, there were no lines. The traffic at Western Station, the city's main rail terminal, has dropped 75 percent, to 80,000 passengers a day.

Beijing universities are closing.

More than half of universities in Beijing said they would close indefinitely as the highly infectious disease spreads there.

It is important to remember that the coronavirus that is the probable cause of SARS is nowhere near as easily spread as influenza. Yet, as previous history demonstrates (most notably the 1918 Spanish Flu), very deadly influenza strains can infect the human population. Given that SARS can cause this degree of fear and panic and economic disruption then just imagine the effects on human behavior of an especially deadly influenza epidemic. Countries would close their borders. Cities around the world would become ghost towns. Natural biological phenomena still have the capacity to cause huge changes in the behavior of literally billions of people.

What I'd like to see come out of the SARS epidemic is a wider appreciation of the need to develop better capabilities to respond to natural disease outbreaks in the human population. Much of what needs to be done to prepare for natural disease outbreaks is also is helpful for handling bioterrorism attacks. Better monitoring systems are needed for both natural and man-made disease outbreak scenarios. Faster methods of identification and isolation and characterization of pathogens and faster methods for developing and manufacturing vaccines are all helpful for both types of scenarios. Advances in biotechnology are needed to speed up all the steps of response to a new disease.

Another area that needs to be looked at is how to allow people to carry out more of the normal activities of business and commerce with less exposure to other humans. What simple cheap things can be developed to allow people to move around and do things without coming into as much contact with surfaces other humans have touched or air that other humans have coughed particles into.

I can imagine all sorts of simple and cheap ways to reduce exposures. For instance, how about short sticks to use to press elevator buttons? Or how about more foot operated devices such as restroom soap squirters and water faucet operators so that people don't have to touch surfaces that other people touched?

Another important area that needs work is the development of better facial masks. This is an area that cries out for nanotechnological developments to create material that will filter air more efficiently and last longer. Masks should not become less efficient as they build up moisture from a person's exhalations of breath. Masks should be able to take more particles out of the air with less resistance so that breathing with them is easier.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 April 18 01:29 PM  Dangers Natural Bio

Patrick said at April 21, 2003 9:13 PM:

Having worked in this area I can tell you that high efficiency filtration material that will filter out viruses to 5 or 6 "9"s of removal is already widely available, and very cheaply too.

It is just that up till now there has been no demand for it in a face mask. Several companies are no doubt racing to fill this new market niche.

Why has there been no demand? Because it is a pointless excercise in wishful thinking. The material of the face mask is of no real effect on the total virus removal once you achieve a basic level of filtration. The gaps around the edges of the mask where it contacts the skin let in more germs than even the current models. The eyes of the wearer are another entry point. And the removal of the mask and cleaning of the hands and face before anything like eating or drinking occurs requires a level of detail and preparation that is ridiculous in a consumer application.

On the other hand, having public toilet doors that don't require opening with your hands would be a real advance. I've noticed lately that all the public toilets I've seen have two doors, one swinging in and one swinging out, so you have to use your hand to pull one open no matter which way you are going. It seems deliberate.

Randall Parker said at April 21, 2003 11:16 PM:

Patrick, From what I've read the moisture in human breath causes the filtration efficiency of most masks to decay. I wonder if there are types of material that would resist the decay of their efficiency better in response to moisture.

Yes, I understand that the areas where the masks contact the skin have to be tight. Some facial masks are molded for this purpose. I could imagine some kind of material that allowed one to press a mask to one's face and then to harden to maintain the contact. Perhaps some sort of material could be used to help make the contact mildly adhesive.

Also, yes, you are quite correct about eyes and other locations as entry points. I certainly think that if one was living in a high risk area it would make sense to wear protective eye gear like, for instance, lab safety googles. Air tightness would help there but even glasses that are for protecting from splashes and from flying objects would reduce exposure to airborne droplets.

Also, it would be wise to wear long sleeve shirts and otherwise reduce the amount of skin surface area that was exposed.

Yes, toilet doors and other doors and handles would need to be changed to not require hands to operate.

Given that China has probably waited too long to start to really take SARS seriously I now think SARS is going to spread thru much of the world. Therefore this discussion may become very unhypothetical for at least some of us.

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