From Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas Christakis, pg 29-30:
The world is quite different now than it was during prior plagues; today we have exceedingly dense cities, electronic technology, modern medicine, better material circumstances, and the ability to know what is happening in real time. Scientists can track the outbreaks from space—as they watch cities shut down. And from the ground—as they observe people’s mobile phones ceasing their translocation. And at a molecular level—as they use genetic techniques to analyze mutations, capturing the spread of the virus.
But from the point of view of the virus, the climate is ripe and things are as simple as ever. It is having a field day. In terms of evolutionary biology, the virus has had what is known as an “ecological release.” This refers to the expansion of range and the population explosion that occurs when a species is freed from constraints it previously faced. The typical example of this is invasive species introduced by humans such as the cane toads that overwhelmed Australia, the rats that overwhelmed New Zealand (nearly wiping out the dinosaur-like tuataras that had occupied the island for millions of years, until 1250 CE), and the kudzu plants in the southeastern United States. The new arrivals suddenly find wide-open terrain for them to exploit. Our species has no natural immunity to the virus. We have never seen this particular pathogen before. It is a “virgin soil epidemic.” 81 And so the coronavirus swept through humanity like a wave.
He returns to this point on pg 85-86:
Though plagues have long been a part of the human experience, when the coronavirus gained its footing in early 2020, it met a scientific and medical environment wholly different from those of prior pandemics. Scientists can rapidly sequence the genome of the virus, which allows them to identify new variants of the virus and track its spread. We can invent and deploy genetic tests to quickly and accurately diagnose infection. We can track the flow of people around the globe using mobile-phone data. We have ICUs and computerized ventilators that were not even imaginable in the past. We have whole new classes of antiviral drugs and a deep understanding of virus biology and pharmacology. And we can use the internet to share information instantly and widely. But how much did all of that really help us? We have not done much better at stopping a virus than our forebears did, and they had fewer resources. Despite all the advances in science and medicine in the past century, it’s humbling and shocking to think how little things have changed. With our bans of public gatherings and our use of masks, it feels like a return to the primitive tools of an epidemiological stone age. And yet familiar threats call for familiar measures.