How does the COVID-19 pandemic compare to other infamous viral infections that have plagued us in modern times? It’s a question that’s been asked repeatedly in social media circles in recent weeks as people struggle to gain a better understanding of what we are facing.

Recently, I received an answer that was terrifying.

The subject was raised during a March 18 webinar featuring Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He is the nation’s top infectious disease expert, who was described recently by the Washington Post as the “grandfatherly captain of the corona­virus crisis”.

Dr. Fauci was asked by the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association to put the virus in historical context. His  response:

In my 40 years at the NIH, I’ve never seen anything like this. It is totally unique. We’ve been through emerging infectious diseases and in some cases crises, like we had with the anthrax scare back in 2001, Ebola virus, the early years of HIV, the scares of influenza pandemics. But nothing of this magnitude.

HIV evolved slowly, even though it turned out to be a terrible affront to human civilization, with a lot of suffering and death. Many other threats didn’t materialize here. Although there was a lot of concern about Ebola, there was never the serious concern of a widespread outbreak in the US, although there have been several devastating epidemics in African countries.

The comparison inspired me to look back at the US experience with HIV, anthrax, and Ebola hemorrhagic fever. (Influenza is covered here.)

HIV: A slower trajectory, harder to contract

I remember the beginnings of the HIV/AIDS pandemic well. I followed it through the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a small, square newsletter from the CDC that sparked many of my ideas as a fledgling science writer.

The first entry in the June 5, 1981, MMWR was unusual.

“5 gay men with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) in LA, reported from October 1980-May 1981.”

Nearly a year later, on May 11, 1982, as cases had quietly mounted, “New Homosexual Disorder Worries Health Officials ran in The New York Times. The article referred to “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency,” or GRID, a term circulating at the time.

Image Credit:  Xiao Yijiu/Associated Press

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