In-Depth: Pandemic history offers lessons for COVID-19

Medical historians compare COVID to 1918 Flu
Posted at 5:04 AM, Feb 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-07 10:38:33-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - People wondering about the future of the COVID-19 pandemic could learn a lot from pandemics of the past, according to a panel of medical historians who spoke with ABC 10News.

"It's important, so we don't get caught flat-footed again," says Dr. Alex Navarro, the Assistant Director of the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.

"While we hope this Pandemic will end soon, we really don't know if we're there yet," he says.

Dr. Navarro and several other medical historians say COVID-19 is most comparable to the 1918 Flu Pandemic, which killed an estimated 50-100 million people. While COVID hasn't been nearly as deadly, they see many similarities.

"1918 came in waves," says Dr. John M. Barry, a Distinguished Scholar at Tulane University's School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "There were several variants of varying transmissibility and virulence."

Dr. Barry wrote a book on the 1918 Flu Pandemic. He says, like then, COVID-19 has come in waves. And, like 1918, he doesn't see this pandemic going in a straight line from its peak to the end.

"It's quite possible that another variant (appears) before we get to that endpoint," he says. "There could be another surge that's more dangerous than we're seeing now."

To make sure people understand the history and similarities, Dr. Paul Weinbaum, a Ph.D. Candidate at Carnegie Mellon University, along with his Advisor Edmund Russell, began teaching a course this semester called "A Tale of Two Epidemics: Influenza 1918 and COVID 19."

Dr. Weinbaum says comparisons with 1918 show that COVID-19 won't have a specific "endpoint." Unlike the smallpox or polio epidemics, which ended when the diseases were "eradicated," COVID-19 will remain part of our lives.

"One thing we learned from (1918) is that these infections become endemic," says Dr. Weinbaum. "(That) means that they continue to exist at low levels in the population, maybe forever."

Dr. Navarro says that's why vaccines are so important. He and Dr. Barry point out the rapid development of vaccines and COVID-19 medicine are the main difference between the two pandemics. They say that's why we haven't seen as dramatic a death toll.

Dr. Navarro also believes the vaccines and therapies will help us turn COVID-19 into something similar to what the flu is now — a disease that can be managed.

"I don't think we're going to vaccinate our way out of eradicating the disease," says Dr. Navarro. "I do think that, hopefully, if we get higher vaccine levels, we will eventually, between vaccinations and natural infections, be able to attain some high level of community immunity that will make subsequent waves of this disease less deadly."

But Dr. Barry warns, like 1918, it could take years to get to that point.

"There was another wave in 1920," Dr. Barry says. "So, 18 months from now, I would say worst-case scenario, we're back to normal. I think the best case would be much sooner than that."

And, years from now, these historians say we'll look back at COVID-19 to learn lessons for the Next Pandemic.

"I think it's really interesting," says Dr. Weinbaum. "And, I think that in 20-30 years, historians will be writing about what happened now."

"It's not if another pandemic will occur, it's when," says Dr. Navarro.