Exponential: How a Nanoscopic Creature Accelerated the World

Hi everyone,

It's been a while since I posted. At first that was due to the hectic schedule of grad school. Then, it was because of a nanoscopic piece of RNA that, for some reason, adores the mucosal recesses of our noses and the pink folds of our lungs. What a feat, that this quirky little bit of wildlife has demanded 7.5 billion humans' attention in a matter of weeks! But more on that later.

The new coronavirus, ensconced in its crown of membrane proteins. I try to include photos of any microorganism I mention. You wouldn't want to read a post about a bird or flower without seeing it, would you? (CDC/Getty Images.)

On the morning of Wednesday, January 22nd, I walked into a third-floor classroom of the Royal Veterinary College. We were scheduled for a lecture on One Health skills and our final assignment, a policy brief. The professor opened with a question.

"Who's been following the news of the new virus in China?" he asked.

A few classmates had seen headlines in the paper on their train commutes, but I hadn't. One Health students are supposed to stay on top of these things. After all, our discipline was founded in response to the 2001 outbreak of SARS coronavirus from a wildlife market in China.

I Googled it. The first result was one of my favorite websites, NPR's Goats and Soda. They cover lots of microbe stories, from the melting permafrost anthrax that inspired part of my Watson year, to their cartoon video series on the history of humans and germs. This time, the microbe story was destined to dominate every news outlet for months, but we didn't know it yet.

I clicked on the headline, "1st Case Of New Coronavirus Detected In U.S." I will always remember reading the second paragraph:

"A man from Washington state returned home after a trip to Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15, sought medical attention on Jan. 19 and now is in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Wash."

Providence Regional Medical Center. I stopped cold. That's the hospital associated with my mom's pediatric practice, thirty minutes north of Seattle. I found out later that this very patient works with my dad in the Everett Boeing factory. Here I was, sitting in a One Health classroom in London, reading news that was way too close to home.

The WhatsApp message I sent to my mother and sister when I first heard of the new coronavirus in Everett. My sister Lisa's reaction sums it up.

The intervening months are a blur. My mother was fine, as was that first patient in Everett, who apparently made a full recovery. But everything started to revolve around this new virus.

Today, writing this blog post, I had to dig into the archives of my WhatsApp to find a link to that original Goats and Soda article. No combination of words I Googled could turn it up. It's been smothered under an accelerating avalanche of news.

My final assignment was a (pretend) policy brief to the government of Malaysia on how to prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. The assignment was due in mid-February. I found it impossible to keep the numbers up to date, as new information was streaming in so quickly. Finally, on February 7th, I decided my brief would be for that day, a frozen snapshot in time.

Then, on February 11th, the coronavirus got a name.

"COVID," announced Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, in a media briefing. "I’ll spell it: C-O-V-I-D hyphen one nine – COVID-19."

But I couldn't update the name in my policy brief, because then I'd have to update all my numbers to February 11th, too! And every day, more cases were being diagnosed in Malaysia, more restrictions were being laid down by Hong Kong and Singapore, more deaths were reported from China. It was a pace of change that would only increase.

A fragment of my final assignment for the One Health skills module of my master's degree, a pretend policy brief to the Malaysian government on controlling the new coronavirus.

I created my first Systems Dynamic Model of viral spread and tinkered with the inputs. What if 50% of the population were reached by public-service announcements about hand washing? What if 10% of schools were to close? Up and down I moved the variables, watching millions of imaginary lives get saved or extinguished. But the virus was still mostly contained to China, and it all seemed like a game.

My university, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is one of the top institutions in the world for public health and virus modelling. I started attending extra lectures on the coronavirus, live-Tweeting them to spread this information beyond the walls of the John Snow Lecture Theater.

The sign says "Coronavirus outbreak" with an arrow into the lecture theater... was I wise to enter?

In daily emails from my residence hall, Goodenough College, I tracked the UK government's level of concern. Starting with the first bulletin on January 28th, we were assured that "Public Health England has assessed the risk to the UK population as low." Within three days, that risk was adjusted to "moderate," and on March 16th – a few days after the WHO classified COVID-19 as a pandemic – it was finally ratcheted up to "high."

The registrar of Goodenough College reassured us often that the residence hall would not shut down, even if it ran into severe staff shortages. "I can clean a bathroom, probably better for you if I don’t try and cook your dinner," she wrote. "We know that there are Members who are unable to return home or have nowhere else to go." That message was one reason why my partner Collin and I decided to stay in London.

One of the first restrictions I felt was when my school's cafe stopped accepting reusable cups.

The growth of microbes is a common example of what it means to be "exponential." When you deposit a drop of bacteria onto a Petri dish of fresh agar, the bacteria dawdle for a bit in the lag phase, when you don't see much change. Then they hit the exponential phase. The one droplet turns into two colonies, then four, then eight. In the blink of an eye, half the plate is covered, then the whole thing. Watching exponential growth can be dizzying.

That's how my world has felt since January. New information comes faster and faster. The intervals between upheavals get shorter and shorter. Life plans I would normally expect to take months are happening in days.

This comparison between the exponential change in our lives and the exponential growth of microbes is not a metaphor. This time, the two are inextricably, physically linked.

Airports were among the first places to post alerts about the novel coronavirus. This sign in Sea-Tac focused on travelers to China.

Soon after, signs were posted in my schools. This photo is from the inside door of a toilet stall. Already, you can see the list of countries has expanded to include Thailand, South Korea, Italy and a dozen more. As my hometown of Seattle became a COVID-19 hotspot, I kept waiting for it to appear on these signs. It never did, maybe because the list would have become too long by then, or maybe because the US did so little testing at the beginning.

The shifting policies have been hard to navigate.

On Monday, March 9th, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine announced that its doors would be closing in two weeks, at which point classes would move online. Professors began to speed-talk, cramming two lectures into each session.

I was suspicious we'd really have two weeks. I imagined a cosmic pipette depositing a drop of coronavirus onto our planet-shaped Petri dish stocked with 7.5 billion pairs of human lungs. The lag phase was nearing its end. One colony, two, four, eight... half the dish...

Sure enough, within days, the school's door-closing date was bumped up a week. One morning, it was effective immediately. Tests were moved forward, then suspended indefinitely, then replaced by essays, then changed to online tests. We didn't know what to study, or when.

The BT Tower admonished everyone to "stay at home" in our neighborhood of London.

So I was only mildly surprised when I learned I was getting kicked out of my apartment.

It was a sunny afternoon, just starting to smell like spring. Grass pollen tickled my nose. I was walking through Regent's Park with my friend Kaytie, a responsible six feet between us, when I got a Facebook message from Collin telling me to check my email.

In my inbox, I found a message from the president of Goodenough College:

"The essential message for all Members, at whatever stage of their course or irrespective of their status, is that IF you can leave safely now and return home, you should." Bold and underline from the original. It told us to vacate your flat by the end of the week and concluded ominously, "It may be that we will no longer be able to guarantee providing a safe place for you all here in the long-term if the crisis continues to escalate at this current rate."

A few hours later, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered Londoners to shelter in place and announced that violators would be fined by the police.

The toilet paper shelf in our grocery store, Waitrose, was the first to be cleared out (well, after hand sanitizer).

A local wine store on Lamb's Conduit took quickly to bartering.

Collin and I did have a home ready to welcome us – my parents' houses in Seattle. But would Collin be able to continue working across the eight-hour time difference? Could we afford US health insurance? What would we do with our belongings? What about the cupboards we'd packed with beans and rice and cans of soup? Were planes still flying?

We had agonized about whether to stay in London or leave for Seattle, but the message from Goodenough tipped our scales. After weeks of settling in for the long haul, we decided to go.

Now, we had four days to buy plane tickets, find storage for everything we owned, give away our food, end our lease, beg masks off a friend, cancel our cell phone plans, return library books, inform my schools, make arrangements with Collin's work, plan transportation to Heathrow, and acquire a space for 14 days of self-quarantine once we arrived in the US. We knew the airplane would be the highest risk of encountering coronavirus we'd faced yet, and the last thing we wanted to do was bring an unwelcome stowaway into the lungs of my parents, both of whom are over 60.

I'll leave the journey itself for the next post. For now, know that we are safe in Seattle, and grateful for the immense support we've had along the way.