Image of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), courtesy of the Center for Disease Control.
Image of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), courtesy of the Center for Disease Control.

Understanding the Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Coronavirus (COVID-19). Photo Credit: CDC.gov.
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About This Episode

On this episode of StarTalk Radio, Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Chuck Nice sit down with Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, to discuss everything we need to know about the Coronavirus (COVID-19). 

We start with the basics: what is the Coronavirus? Irwin gives us details on the virus that’s been making waves around the world. You’ll find out what we know and what we don’t know so far. Explore what makes something a pandemic and how viruses like this come about. Learn the similarities between COVID-19 and the seasonal flu. We discuss the processes behind getting a vaccine in place to deal with this issue. In the meantime, Irwin tells us all the things we can do to be preventative.

We discuss whether people are over-reacting to the outbreak. Irwin explains why paying attention to the updates about the virus is appropriate and why going over the top and panicking is not appropriate. You’ll learn about the most important aspects of disaster preparedness when it comes to virus outbreaks. 

Irwin shares why clear and transparent communication between a government and its citizens is one of the most vital measures to have in place during a pandemic. Lastly, we explore the reasons to be hopeful during the upcoming weeks. All that, plus, we answer your fan-submitted Cosmic Queries. 

Thanks to our Patrons Ivan Perez, Jon Mack, Johnathon Singer, Brandon Fergerson, Christopher O’Keefe, and Roy Hill-Percival for supporting us this week.

NOTE: StarTalk+ Patrons and All-Access subscribers can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free.

Transcript

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[CLIP]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Hey StarTalk fans, Neil deGrasse Tyson here. I just wanted to give you a quick update on the episode, you’re about to watch. I sat down with Dr. Irwin Redlener, who’s director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. That was two weeks ago on March 3rd and since then the progress of the coronavirus has continued at a pace that none of us predicted. In fact, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic and many cities are encouraging social distancing either by suggestions or by actual policy. And so, we recommend everyone follow local authorities, local medical authorities on this. We want this program to help you make the best decisions you can when tracking the progress of this disease. And for all I know, two weeks from now, …

[CLIP]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Hey StarTalk fans, Neil deGrasse Tyson here. I just wanted to give you a quick update on the episode, you’re about to watch. I sat down with Dr. Irwin Redlener, who’s director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. That was two weeks ago on March 3rd and since then the progress of the coronavirus has continued at a pace that none of us predicted. In fact, the World Health Organization declared it a pandemic and many cities are encouraging social distancing either by suggestions or by actual policy. And so, we recommend everyone follow local authorities, local medical authorities on this. We want this program to help you make the best decisions you can when tracking the progress of this disease. And for all I know, two weeks from now, I might have to give a preamble to this preamble because of how much things may have changed relative to today. So, we offer this show in the interest of your enlightenment, your health, and your wisdom. [END CLIP]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Hey YouTube-iverse, a Cosmic Queries coming up now. Disaster preparedness, what you need to know.

[MUSIC UP & UNDER]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON This is StarTalk, a Cosmic Queries Special Edition focusing on disaster preparedness. Got with me Chuck Nice.

CHUCK NICE Yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON As always.

CHUCK NICE Boom.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON In the house.

CHUCK NICE Neil.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We’re always doing this in front of some befuddled guest.

CHUCK NICE Yes, who’s like why are these two reaching in front of me to bump hands.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Bump hands. I’ve got Dr. Irwin Redlener, who is the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness.

CHUCK NICE Oh.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON At Columbia University.

CHUCK NICE Excellent.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And he’s a medical doctor by training and he cut his teeth with, what, the kids… What did you do with the kids?

IRWIN REDLENER It was the Children’s Health Fund.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Children’s Health Fund.

IRWIN REDLENER Exactly, with Paul Simon that we started these mobile units that took care of-

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Paul Simon, the performer?

IRWIN REDLENER Paul Simon the singer-songwriter and we started in 1987 taking care of homeless kids in New York, now expanded across the country with –

CHUCK NICE Wow.

IRWIN REDLENER – 53 mobile medical pediatric units.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Whoa. Whoa.

CHUCK NICE That’s quite noble.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And, and what a legacy.

IRWIN REDLENER Yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON To have that keep going.

IRWIN REDLENER Sure.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right, right, right.

CHUCK NICE I look forward to the day when it’s no longer necessary.

IRWIN REDLENER I’ve been looking forward for that, to that for 33 years.

CHUCK NICE Exactly.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah. And so, disaster preparedness, who would

have thought that that’s even a thing. Isn’t it just you know get your go bag? Isn’t it just that?

IRWIN REDLENER Oh God, I wish it was, Neil. It just, it just –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Go-bag, you know, you have your flashlight. And you got your radio, or knife, or whatever.

CHUCK NICE First-aid kit.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah, yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER Side arm, or…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON The whole thing.

IRWIN REDLENER No, hey, ladies and Gentleman, I was just kidding.

CHUCK NICE Yes. Irwin has a bit, Irwin has a bit more dystopian view of disaster preparedness, I see.

IRWIN REDLENER They know I was kidding, right? Yeah, yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Depends on what state he’s in.

CHUCK NICE Exactly.

IRWIN REDLENER So, yeah that’s the individual things, there’s things that you can do, you look online, you go to the FEMA or the Red Cross website, they’ll tell you all that. What we are concerned about –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

IRWIN REDLENER But what we’re, the much more important thing is society ready? Is our government ready? Is the country ready for –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Are our institutions ready?

IRWIN REDLENER Are institutions ready, is the, is their readiness on the level of real serious preparedness and pre-thought about what we actually need to do to manage things like a, like a pandemic. You know. That’s kind of –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We know what to do, just, just raid all the shelves of the grocery store, obviously.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER Only if you look like you’re in a panic. Yes. but that’s right. Yes.

CHUCK NICE You just buy all the, you just buy up all the mask that you can.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON The mask and the Purell.

CHUCK NICE And the Purell.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And you’re done.

CHUCK NICE And we’re done.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHUCK NICE We’re all saved.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You’re prepared.

IRWIN REDLENER Right. In fact, I’m looking around here to see you got your stuff, I don’t see anything but okay. Probably hidden. But no, but I think really the big thing is what does the country need to do, what kind of responsible leadership do we need to have in order to do it and should the country feel anywhere near comfortable, right now, for example when we’re dealing with this coronavirus or getting ready for any other kind of major disaster, a huge, you know, coastal storm like we saw of Katrina or hurricane Maria and so on. So, there’s lots of work –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Or asteroid.

CHUCK NICE That’s right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You can’t leave out the asteroid.

CHUCK NICE You know we actually could.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Got to give them some love, too.

CHUCK NICE We could actually leave that out.

IRWIN REDLENER I hope we can leave that out.

CHUCK NICE I hope we can leave that out.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah. Seriously, should we be worried about that?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s another conversation.

IRWIN REDLENER Ah oh fine, okay.

CHUCK NICE And the answer is yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I can guarantee you that if the dinosaurs had a space program, they would have knocked that asteroid out of the way.

CHUCK NICE All right. So true. So, can I just for a second, just for plain every man here and ask you, number one, what is COVID-19? What is a coronavirus?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON As a category.

CHUCK NICE As a category.

IRWIN REDLENER Right. It is, it is a category of viruses much like we had with SARS, something called MERS.

CHUCK NICE MERS. Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Those are acronyms, right?

IRWIN REDLENER Those are, well Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome is MERS.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Didn’t know that.

IRWIN REDLENER And SARS is Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER So, yes, so, they’re all acronyms. COVID also is, what COVID is, is coronavirus disease.

CHUCK NICE Coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

IRWIN REDLENER It’s called COVID-19 and the 19 just refers to last year when it was first recognized.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I was worried there were 18 others walking around.

CHUCK NICE Thank god.

IRWIN REDLENER And 6 more to come.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER The COVID-25 is really the problem.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s the one to watch out for.

CHUCK NICE Right, so, it’s a category of virus.

IRWIN REDLENER Right.

CHUCK NICE And how does it differ because you know people hear coronavirus –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Why is it getting different…

CHUCK NICE What’s the big deal?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah.

CHUCK NICE Yeah, all kinds of crazy, what’s the big deal?

IRWIN REDLENER So, the thing about a virus like this, which makes it ultimately into a pandemic which is what we’re dealing with now is that it’s first of all it’s a brand-new virus.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER That we’ve not seen before. It is a virus that has jumped from animals, some animal source to humans.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER But more importantly it is now able to be transferred.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It jumped. It, it evolved.

IRWIN REDLENER It evolved, well if somebody caught it initially from an animal.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER Plenty of viruses, dangerous ones that animals have, that do not –

CHUCK NICE Get into human beings.

IRWIN REDLENER Correct. So, this one has already made that leap and its now obviously infecting people but the big important point about this it actually can be now transmitted from a person to another person. And, and, and secondly it could be lethal. So, it’s a new virus, it’s lethal, it’s transmissible among person to person, from person to person and it’s spread across international boundaries.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER All those factors –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s because we have is airplanes.

IRWIN REDLENER Right, exactly.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right. Right, you know, it’s not like, let’s walk to the nearest town. You know, it’s like we, we have a level of mobility without precedent in this world.

IRWIN REDLENER Yes, so, there’s two very interesting things to note one is there was a, there was a massive avian flu called the Spanish flu in 1918.

CHUCK NICE Mm-hmm.

IRWIN REDLENER And as you’ll recall very limited air travel then like nothing and at that point we also had very little in the way of medical care.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER Now we have much better medical care even though we don’t have a specific treatment for the COVID virus but we have enormous amount of international travel by air. So, the ability to transmit across international boundaries is very, very significant.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, if you really diabolical, you would say viruses invented humans to be smart enough to invent airplanes so they can travel.

CHUCK NICE So, they can catch a ride. So, they can catch a ride.

IRWIN REDLENER Well, they’ll never get through security otherwise.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It’s diabolical.

CHUCK NICE And by the way people, there you have it, so, if you want to know your place in the universe, you’re nothing more than an Uber for a virus.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh, there you go.

IRWIN REDLENER Wow, okay.

CHUCK NICE So.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, in 1918, of course, that was the end of the first World War and there’s huge troop movement returning home.

IRWIN REDLENER Exactly.

CHUCK NICE Wow.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Ships, so, that would be the…

IRWIN REDLENER Right. The vector, the means.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON The vector, yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER Right, so, they brought a lot of virus, in fact they went home to wherever they were going including the rest of Europe and, and back to the US and that was probably a major factor here and we lost about seven almost 700,000 Americans to the Spanish flu but between 50 and –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON 700,000?!

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We only lost like, only, lost like 50 or 60,000 in the war, in all of Vietnam.

CHUCK NICE In all, right.

IRWIN REDLENER It was 58,000.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah, 58,000 in Vietnam.

CHUCK NICE Wow.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And 700,000 Americans.

IRWIN REDLENER And, and the population then, of course, was way smaller.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It was half of what it is now, yeah, or less.

CHUCK NICE Now if, is this true that the reason why that happened is because the government did not want to –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You’re talking about the Spanish –

CHUCK NICE The Spanish flu, we’re talking about.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah.

CHUCK NICE The government did not want to acknowledge the transmission of the flu here in America and that, that it was happening on military bases.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It could mean morale problem.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER Well…

CHUCK NICE Is, is that true?

IRWIN REDLENER No, you know, it was impossible to ignore. There were too, I had two great grandparents who were died, who died from that. You couldn’t ignore, there was just people dying constantly although they didn’t know much about the virus behavior or how it was transmitted. There was and they certainly had nothing to treat it with and there were no vaccines.

CHUCK NICE Gotcha.

IRWIN REDLENER So, it was happening, it was bad, they knew was being transmitted one way or another, they were trying to do what they could, but it wasn’t much in that…

CHUCK NICE Wasn’t much in that era. Yeah, okay.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Wait, so, so, now with COVID –

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON – 19, it had, it can travel, so, all right. So, wouldn’t that be true for any virus.

CHUCK NICE Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON What would again, what distinguishes –

IRWIN REDLENER What COVID-19 –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON – from any other virus that want to accomplish the same goal?

IRWIN REDLENER Right. So, what, for one thing, it, it’s lethal.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Mm-hm.

IRWIN REDLENER The second thing is we don’t know enough about the –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Rather it can be lethal.

IRWIN REDLENER It can be lethal, of course. Yeah, in fact, the lethality rate is a big controversy right now because we don’t know the denominator, always a problem when we’re trying to figure out the percentage of something, so, right now the, the World Health Organization as of this morning was saying it’s a, it’s got a 3.4%.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Just to be clear, the denominator is the total number of people infected in any given moment.

IRWIN REDLENER Exactly.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right, and then, you know who dies because they’re dead.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON But you don’t know everybody who has the disease.

IRWIN REDLENER We know, we know a fraction and we don’t know, we don’t even know whether it’s a big fraction or a small fraction whatever it is but, so, given the number of people that we know have the disease worldwide which is around a hundred thousand at the moment and the fatality rate, what we know about that, so you make that, just a division and you find out that we have a 3.4% fatality right now, which also means by the way and but it’s probably way less than 1%, but even if it was 3% that means that 97% of people get this virus will survive it.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Mm-hmm.

IRWIN REDLENER So, this is not a, you know, you don’t, it’s not a death sentence if you get this.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It’s not the zombie virus.

IRWIN REDLENER It’s not the zombie virus. No.

CHUCK NICE Cool.

IRWIN REDLENER No.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Notice he didn’t say, ‘there is no zombie virus.’ When I say that, you’re supposed to say, ‘noooo…’ You’re supposed to deny.

IRWIN REDLENER I thought you knew there was a zombie virus. Of all people you would know that, but apparently not.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON All right, we’re going to pick up more on this when we come back to a Special Edition of StarTalk Cosmic Queries: Disaster Preparedness. Viruses.

[MUSIC UP & UNDER]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We’re back. StarTalk Cosmic Queries: Disaster Preparedness. There’s one person in the universe who’s, that’s in his job title. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Put that on your business card.

CHUCK NICE Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON People get out of your way right there.

CHUCK NICE Exactly. Either that or they’re always calling and asking you to help get them prepared.

IRWIN REDLENER How did you know that?

CHUCK NICE Yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHUCK NICE That’s got to be annoying.

IRWIN REDLENER No, it’s…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, you know, in any given moment, the seasonal flu…

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON No one is taking these kinds of precautions, COVID-19 precautions to not get the seasonal flu, why?

IRWIN REDLENER Well, 45%, only, of people actually get the flu shot every year, which is kind of crazy since we have between 35,000 and 50,000 deaths every single year from the seasonal flu.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s, that’s 100 a day.

CHUCK NICE I will never understand it, never.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s a 100 a day.

IRWIN REDLENER Okay.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON All right. So, why isn’t all of this outcry that we are now getting with COVID-19 applied to the seasonal flu? Washing the hands and all those normal things would also protect you –

IRWIN REDLENER It would certainly protect you.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON From the seasonal flu.

IRWIN REDLENER You know and, and I, I just I can’t explain it. Something about the fact that this is a new thing.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER It came from China, which is scaring people. It’s like some other mysterious thing that came you know like the H1N1 and other kind of, and SARS in fact –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON H1N1 was 1918?

IRWIN REDLENER 2019. 2009. 2009.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON 2009.

CHUCK NICE Swine flu, right?

IRWIN REDLENER Swine flu. Yeah, exactly. So, this is a, this is actually a mystery why people are so worked up about this and I think it has to do with the fact that it is new, it’s getting a lot of attention, we don’t know quite what to do about it.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Have we been able to track a virus with this level of daily updates before today? Before this level of internet and social media access?

IRWIN REDLENER Well, it’s, not really, you know, there’s a lot to, and by the way there’s a lot that we don’t know about.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We’re getting hourly updates.

IRWIN REDLENER It’s crazy and part of it is we just don’t know a lot of key information. What’s the incubation period of COVID-19? Yeah. So, we’re telling people it’s 2 to 14 days, probably 3 to 4 weeks actually for some people.

CHUCK NICE Wow.

IRWIN REDLENER So, you can be carrying this for a long time.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You can carry and transmit it, while you’re carrying it?

IRWIN REDLENER Yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Even though you don’t have symptoms.

IRWIN REDLENER Exactly.

CHUCK NICE Oh my god. So, asymptomatic transmission for 3 to 4 weeks?!

IRWIN REDLENER It’s possible. Possible.

CHUCK NICE I’m sorry. You know what, I’m going to calm down.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON The panic has begun.

CHUCK NICE I know, it’s like…

IRWIN REDLENER I just wrote him a prescription. He’ll live. Yeah, no.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I can settle this, don’t panic.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER There you go.

CHUCK NICE There you go. Neil, he always knows the right thing to say. I feel so much better now.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, so…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Well, under what condition does anybody ever tell you, don’t panic.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah. All day long.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It’s when you have to panic.

CHUCK NICE Exactly

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s a good point.

CHUCK NICE Yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah, yeah.

CHUCK NICE You’re right, no one ever walks into a room and says, ladies and gentlemen the building is not on fire. Don’t panic.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, it’s like calm down, right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right.

CHUCK NICE Yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER So, yeah, and this is, this is really a problem now, I just want to clarify something. You obviously spread more virus when you’re coughing and sneezing.

CHUCK NICE Correct.

IRWIN REDLENER But still when you’re asymptomatic, you’re still able to transmit it and that’s something that people should be aware of.

CHUCK NICE Mm-hmm.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Okay so, again compare it to a normal seasonal flu.

CHUCK NICE Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Where all these same precautions would prevent that, but we’re not undergoing those same precautions for the seasonal flu.

IRWIN REDLENER Correct. This is actually a Keystone Cops level of incompetence in the federal government. There is a delay, you know, the thing is, when did we get started? Because it does take at least a year to year and a half to make a vaccine because you have to figure out the right combination and understand the DNA of the virus, you have to make it, you have to do animal trials, you have to then do expanded human trials, and you have to manufacture, and distribute it. However…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Okay, so, total overhead.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah. The, the –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It adds up.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah it does and if you add to that two or three months of inexplicable delays and screw-ups, if I can use that on this podcast, by the federal government you have a really, really bad situation.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Did you just worry whether you can say the word screw-up?

IRWIN REDLENER I did.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You know we got to take him to the hood.

CHUCK NICE I appreciate it.

IRWIN REDLENER I’m ready to go. I had to control myself but okay.

CHUCK NICE He said, I’m ready to go. That’s awesome.

IRWIN REDLENER But yeah so. Yeah, and I, I just, we’ve never seen the CDC this dysfunctional.

CHUCK NICE So, now with that in mind, let’s just talk about for because there is, you know, mixed messaging happening at the highest levels of government, what can we do knowing that a vaccine is like a year away?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

CHUCK NICE What can we do without, as Neil told me, without panicking?

IRWIN REDLENER Well, what we can do is, first of all, we could actually use the old tried-and-true contact your representatives and your, you know, people in Congress and tell them we want everything accelerated, we want enough money appropriated to and to deal with this, we want staff rehired at the CDC.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s not going to stop you from getting the disease.

IRWIN REDLENER No, no. I misunderstand.

CHUCK NICE No it’s fine, too. I mean, yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, after he just told us a story about how dysfunctional it was.

CHUCK NICE Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, that’s what…

CHUCK NICE Well no, I meant what can we do to not get the disease but I was liking this answer as well.

IRWIN REDLENER Okay fine, so, then basically the thing is while we’re waiting for the vaccine, we’re doing the things that Neil mentioned before, we’re, a lot of frequent obsessive hand-washing, we’re using hand sanitizers, if you can even get it now, which you can for about $500 a little, for a little bottle on Amazon.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah, I saw that. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The price gouging.

CHUCK NICE Oh wow.

IRWIN REDLENER You noticed?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yes, yes, yes.

IRWIN REDLENER So, no, no that’s really unfortunate but you take care of yourself, you make sure that if you’re sick, if you got respiratory symptoms, please don’t go in public, stay home. We want businesses to really gear up, including this one, for example to be able to work remotely as much as possible if things really go to hell and we have them lots of spread.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Fortunately, remote working is, is more real than ever.

IRWIN REDLENER Absolutely.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON In the history of the world.

IRWIN REDLENER Absolutely.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right, for more people. Not everyone.

CHUCK NICE Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You can’t flip hamburgers remotely, but for a lot of other jobs you can.

IRWIN REDLENER You can, exactly, right. And so, people should be, right now, assessing their abilities to do that and making sure their staff know what to do and that they’ve got all the equipment they need to do this kind of remote working and teleconferencing and so on.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And you do this until when?

IRWIN REDLENER Until I don’t know when actually, I’m sorry to say because we don’t know how long it’s going to last.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You’re the Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and I say, ‘what, how long do we do this?’ ‘I don’t know. But don’t panic.’

IRWIN REDLENER Well, how about this, when is the asteroid hitting us? You know that?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Touché.

CHUCK NICE Was going to say that’s a snappy comeback.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah, that was a snappy comeback.

CHUCK NICE There you go.

IRWIN REDLENER Snappy, I don’t know but…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON But, is there a point where, this is not an unrealistic scenario, let me imagine…

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That everyone does get the message, you don’t go out if you have a little respiratory thing, if you’re sneezy, you stay in, you wash your hands all the time, you clean surfaces, is it possible if the

COVID will just lightly wash over the country and then exit and then we come out with the minimal damage, is that possible?

IRWIN REDLENER It’s not out of the question and given the fact this is the whole problem of these quote, unquote, novel or new viruses that we, we, so much we don’t know about their behavior, what might happen,

you could postulate almost any trajectory.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Scenario.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah and you know it’s possible that it’ll fade away I don’t know why it would particularly.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON It could have just become endemic.

IRWIN REDLENER It could become endemic.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Slowly just always passing around.

IRWIN REDLENER And it could become seasonal. Like a regular seasonal flu, in which case we’d incorporate the new vaccine for this into the regular, you know, flu vaccines that you get every year. So, then, then it becomes not really an issue and the second thing is that we might actually develop an antiviral medication that’s specific for this and that would be good too. But right now we don’t really have those things, so, we’re trying to really do all the containment we possibly can.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Would you say that the public has been

overreacting based on everything you’ve seen?

IRWIN REDLENER Well, the public, it’s hard to say.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON The empty shelves in the grocery store.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, well that’s, you know, this panic buying stuff is not good idea, and plus the general hope is that people will get ready for disasters anyway. They’ll have a certain amount of food and water at all times in case some other kind of thing happens. And, and of course, that, that hasn’t really happened, no, there’s been no penetration of that message particularly either but maybe, well, this will kind of stimulate people to do that, but we don’t want to go crazy, but I’ll tell you there’s a couple key things that people need to be reminded about when they’re stocking up in case they have to be self-quarantine. One is if you have a pet, what’s going to happen? You’re going to be able to walk the dog? You have cat litter? Do you have all the stuff you need for the pet? Secondly your baby. Baby, if it’s, if you have a very young baby who’s being breastfed, that’s fine. An older child who’s on either formula or needs other food or baby food, make sure you have that. Make sure you have diapers and all that, and all that stuff.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Supplies. Normal supplies.

IRWIN REDLENER But the third thing, which is maybe most important, is that if you have a chronic illness and you’re dependent on daily meds,

for life, you know, like you have diabetes or serious heart disease, make sure that you have enough stock of those medications to see you through whatever period of quarantine that we’re getting ready for. That’s the thing where the supply chain by the way could be most problematic because if we can’t get this stuff and you can’t go to the drugstore.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON The transportation grid.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER Everything, everything is problematic about it. I rather have you have it in your medicine chest in, on a shelf someplace so that you have it available. Problem is will the insurance companies –

CHUCK NICE I was about to say.

IRWIN REDLENER – allow you to get this ahead of time.

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER And what about all the uninsured people in general, by the way, even getting a test is a problem.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s a whole another, another.

IRWIN REDLENER 12 million undocumented people who are really fearful, legitimately so, of even going to a doctor or hospital because

they might get deported that afternoon. So, we have all sorts of social-economic problems that really keep us from being optimally prepared. That said, the majority of people need to do the kind of things we were just talking about.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Why don’t we do what we did when I was a kid where, when we were kids, we’re about the same age where you know someone has the mumps, everyone brings the kids in to get the mumps and then we’re all immunized by our own –

IRWIN REDLENER Or chickenpox.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Or the chickenpox, yeah, yeah, maybe not the mumps.

CHUCK NICE COVID party at my house.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah, so, so… Well, I’m asking. So, so there, there’s some people who had only mild symptoms and presumably when those symptoms go away, they have an immunity.

IRWIN REDLENER Well, that was the presumption.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh.

IRWIN REDLENER But here’s the problem, as this virus mutates, you may have been you know, resistant to getting it again today but if it mutates enough, so, it doesn’t really evoke the same immune response in your body.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, your antibodies were ready for what it used to look like-

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah if it changed.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON – yesterday and not what it looks like tomorrow.

CHUCK NICE So, it does like a Tom Cruise Mission Impossible reveal. It was me! The coronavirus all along! Ha ha, I fooled you, immune system.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right, well okay. So, yeah, so the worst case is it’s… It’s endemic. It’s seasonal, you get it but you guys figure out a vaccine and we just move on.

IRWIN REDLENER Medication.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Anti-viral and we just live with it.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Well, when we come back we’re finally going to get to questions that we’ve solicited from our fan base on disaster preparedness and the COVID-19 virus. When StarTalk returns.

[MUSIC UP & UNDER]

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We’re back. StarTalk Cosmic Queries. Which side of it says that. There we go. Cosmic Queries StarTalk Special Edition.

CHUCK NICE Yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We’re talking about disaster preparedness and

viruses, in particular, the COVID-19 virus. I’ve got Dr. Irwin Redlener. He’s actually an old friend. Chuck, I don’t if you knew that.

CHUCK NICE I did not.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON He goes way back.

CHUCK NICE I know it now.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You know a friend we had in common by the name of Carl Sagan.

CHUCK NICE Oh wow.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON He worked with Carl on some humanitarian projects. Is that, right?

IRWIN REDLENER Oh yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER In fact, he was on the board of the Children’s Health Fund, my foundation.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah excellent, excellent. So, good to hear that and you’ve been, he’s just a good guy, the whole, the whole time. What do we have to show for that. So, Chuck, let’s get some questions out here from Patreon members.

CHUCK NICE All right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Start with them. Go for it.

CHUCK NICE This is Morgan Gilem from Patreon, of course. Do we really need to be so worried about this virus that’s killing less people than the common flu? It seems it’s just hype by the media. So, two things kind of baked into that question.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON How much of this is clickbait?

CHUCK NICE Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Because if I saw a news story that said outbreak in a new place, I’m clicking on it.

CHUCK NICE Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, how much of it is just on not, I don’t want to call a dishonest reporting, but just sensationalist reporting?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, sort of over-the-top.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Over-the-top reporting.

IRWIN REDLENER You know it’s, it’s really, it’s gotten so muddled now in terms of this that it’s really, it’s hard to know. I would say that we need to be cautious, we need to make sure that the systems are being developed to allow us to prevent and treat this thing and when there’s serious outbreaks, we need to pay attention because we actually don’t want to get this even though the fatality rate may not be, you know, great it is a new virus that we can’t really treat and so, you want to do what is appropriate without, without panicking, as we’re talking about before. So, you want to stock up in case somebody says, ‘you got to be quarantined.’ And by the way, that’s no joke. If you’re told to quarantine,

there’s actually police authority –

CHUCK NICE Right.

IRWIN REDLENER – to enforce that. So, you want to be able to do that

comfortably but you, you know, you, we’re going to take this, it’s sort of

every day, every, one day at a time here but the fact is that paying

attention, this is not inappropriate, going over-the-top and panicking is not appropriate.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON How about domestic travel?

IRWIN REDLENER So, domestic travel, I came back from Denver a few days ago with my wife and one of my granddaughters and one row ahead of me on the other side of the aisle was two guys who were wearing face masks, which got my attention and one of them starts coughing like crazy and sneezing, lifts up his face mask to blow his nose, blows his nose in a tissue, puts it in the seat pocket in front of him. By the way, I get up and I go to the purser.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Did you eject him from the emergency exit?

IRWIN REDLENER I said, excuse me sir, but these guys, you know, and he said, listen there’s nothing we can do about it. I said, are they screened?

The guys are walking around the airplane with face masks, should we check their temperature? Do we get, you know, were they just coming back from Wuhan and now going from, for some reason from Denver to New York with us? We can’t ask them, we don’t know anything. Blah, blah, blah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Okay.

CHUCK NICE Okay, all right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Next question, go.

CHUCK NICE Okay, here we go. This is a David Hemsath and he says, I don’t expect the following to be read on the upcoming show, it’s too long and there’s no question and I just wanted to say, David, you’re right. So. Our next question.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That was cold.

IRWIN REDLENER That was harsh.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh man.

IRWIN REDLENER Wow. And you read the guy’s name.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Just called him out.

CHUCK NICE What can we say… This is Matt Harefield, who says, according to Dr. Redlener, what is the most important aspect of disaster

preparedness when it comes to virus outbreaks and what is the U.S. currently the best or worst at affecting?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh.

IRWIN REDLENER Well, good questions. And so, first of all, let’s just start

with this in general it is always a good idea to be attentive to appropriate

sanitation, I mean sanitary habits, you know, hand-washing frequently,

cleaning off surfaces on places like airplane trays and things like that.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER Now, are there some surfaces where last longer than others, yes. If it’s a very porous surface, less so than on a hard surface but that’s variable. Whatever it is, you get on an airplane I would use some sort of Clorox infused wipe and I clean off the trays, I clean off the

TV screen, I clean off the arm rests.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON These are typically touch screens, right? Yeah, yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER So, you don’t want, try not to put your hand in the pocket seat in front of you. Seat pocket in front of you. You might find a very, a very unfortunate surprise but yeah, I wouldn’t put your hand there but…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON A quick thing, we’re of a generation where the gentleman always had a cloth handkerchief in their pocket and would

offer it to other people to blow their nose.

CHUCK NICE So nasty.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Isn’t that completely nasty?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, I would try not to do that. Are you asking personal question?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON No, look at old movies. They would hand handkerchiefs.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, no I wouldn’t do that. Yeah, but so, the second part of the tummy tuck again what…

CHUCK NICE He said, what are we best at doing in terms of this country. So, what, what should we do and –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON China had drive-through…

IRWIN REDLENER South Korea.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh sorry. South Korea, they have drive-through testing.

IRWIN REDLENER Yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And how about us?

CHUCK NICE Wow.

IRWIN REDLENER So, let’s start with what we’re not very good at, it seems and I was, I’m surprised by this myself, which were not very good apparently at developing the technologies to start paying attention early enough. We completely missed the boat on this. I’m surprised because it’s in some ways transcends whoever’s in political power at the White House. This is, this is something that through all administration’s we depended upon really world-class experts in the CDC and NIH and so on.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Certain things at all times should transcend politics.

IRWIN REDLENER Probably most things should. Would that be fair to say? Yeah. I think. Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I was trying you know…

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, I know you are. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON All right. Fine. Go.

IRWIN REDLENER But anyway, so, here we are at a time that we were really, we’re hoping for way, way especially professionals in my field public health, in general, we expected much, much more from the NIH in the CDC and that those, those parts of the permanent –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Is that incompetence or is that low budget?

IRWIN REDLENER I…

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Or both?

IRWIN REDLENER We, I don’t think it’s incompetence, certainly not at the high levels.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Mm-hmm.

IRWIN REDLENER But we may have kind of strangled the ability for the organization’s to function as they usually do by, by, you know, by dropping staff or whatever but, but –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, what do we do best, then?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Give me some hope here.

IRWIN REDLENER You know I was –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Otherwise this is the last time I’m inviting you all right the show again.

IRWIN REDLENER All right, fine, fine. Well, this show itself is a source of hope, isn’t it?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh.

CHUCK NICE He’s right.

IRWIN REDLENER There you go. Think about that, yeah.

CHUCK NICE That was a good comeback. Yes.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Oh man.

IRWIN REDLENER What do we do best, in terms of this kind of viral thing?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER I guess we’re pretty good at communications until we get to be over-the-top, which is where we’re on the verge of right now.

CHUCK NICE Mm-hmm.

IRWIN REDLENER On the other hand we don’t know where, where the top is.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah.

IRWIN REDLENER We don’t –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Is the top where the number, the cases stabilize or they drop? What is the top? Do you, will you know the top when you’re there?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, well the top is when we start seeing spread and we start seeing a serious persistent diminishing of the number of cases.

CHUCK NICE Gotcha, right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Okay.

CHUCK NICE All right, so, this is Anthony Taylor and he says, and I read this for specific reason that I’ll attach to the end, how big or small is a virus compared to an atom or a molecule? With that, the reason why I asked this question, what is the efficacy of wearing a mask when it comes to staving off the transmission of the virus whether you’re transmitting

it or receiving it?

IRWIN REDLENER Right, so, viruses are very, very tiny.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER And they are much smaller than say bacteria.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER Neil could probably tell you more about the –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON In fact, we have an exhibit here.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON In the Hall of the Universe.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That has a physical model of a, of a red blood cell.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And then on the next scale you see the size of a virus which is like, it’s minuscule.

CHUCK NICE Compared to the red blood cell.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Correct, correct.

CHUCK NICE Gotcha.

IRWIN REDLENER So, masks, this has been, of course, controversial and it’s been a rush on masks you can’t even buy one now but there’s two basic kind of masks. Mask one is called the surgical mask, it is more porous than the other mask, which is what’s called a respirator mask or an N95. N95s are worn by people that are dealing with a lot of high-risk patients. They have to be changed every four to six hours actually.

CHUCK NICE Okay.

IRWIN REDLENER And they are, they will stop a much smaller particle getting through but they’re also very hard to breathe through. You, you, you would have a lot of trouble wearing one of those all day.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Just to be clear. An actual virus can fit through any mask.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON We’re talking about a virus, that’s part of a particle.

IRWIN REDLENER Right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON A vapor particle.

CHUCK NICE It would have to attach itself to something else.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON A droplet. A water droplet. And stops a water droplet and with the virus in it.

IRWIN REDLENER Right. But, but Neil’s point is very important because if the virus became really aerosolized on its own, it could get through any mask.

CHUCK NICE Any mask?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, right. So, but –

CHUCK NICE So, you’re kind of going back to the hygienic techniques that you talked about.

IRWIN REDLENER Right.

CHUCK NICE For making sure, for being preventative, taking preventative measures.

IRWIN REDLENER Exactly.

CHUCK NICE You’re still getting right back to that, even with the masks and all that.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

CHUCK NICE It really comes down to the obsessive hand-washing and you know personal space and all these other things.

IRWIN REDLENER And really don’t shake hands –

CHUCK NICE Don’t shake hands, touching surfaces.

IRWIN REDLENER The elbow bumps and all that

stuff, that’s, that’s exactly right.

CHUCK NICE Gotcha.

IRWIN REDLENER But you know you see people –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s why black people never used to get sick because we all did the fist bumps.

CHUCK NICE That’s right, fist bump.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And elbow bumps and bro hug.

CHUCK NICE That’s right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Right, see.

CHUCK NICE That’s right.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s why.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, that’s why he’s a known social commentator. Yeah, yeah. So, yeah. We should probably go deeper here but I want to say something about…

CHUCK NICE Go ahead, please go ahead.

IRWIN REDLENER It is useless to walk around the street in a mask unless you have yourself respiratory symptoms. So, in other words –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And then you, it’s not to prevent you from getting it, it’s to prevent all the people getting it from you.

CHUCK NICE Exactly right.

IRWIN REDLENER That’s a, that’s a, that’s an important point, so, don’t wear a mask walking around the streets of New York or anywhere else and don’t even bother trying to deal with an N95 mask and then –

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And if you have on a mask and you want

to sneeze, don’t remove the mask to sneeze.

IRWIN REDLENER Thank you very much, sir.

CHUCK NICE Okay, okay.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Neil deGrasse Tyson, MD. That is my advice.

CHUCK NICE Oh man, that’s hilarious.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, so, give us some hope before we wrap this up.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah so, the hope is that we’ve now gotten our act together.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I think the message is out.

IRWIN REDLENER And we need to, you know, pay attention to what’s developing. We can hope that, in fact, it will level out and we won’t have a major global problem and it’ll end up having a fatality rate as low or lower than the seasonal flu. It’ll become part of the regular flu vaccines that we get every year and that will go about our business. But there is definitely hope, it’s just that it’s a new thing and people are, you know, obviously distressed about it and it’s a big news story but, you know, focus on the primaries, I think that’s better.

CHUCK NICE Okay, there you go.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON So, to summarize some of what you said, but put an extra little twist on it. There was a day when we would elect politicians who were our leaders and if there was some kind of outbreak or some kind of a disaster, you would say, I wonder what my leader says and

I will do what the leader tells me but we’re at a time now where trust of

politicians is not what it used to be and so, but we do have access to institutions and expertise through the internet.

CHUCK NICE Mm-hmm.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON And so, the politician no longer needs to be the conduit between us and the scientific results.

IRWIN REDLENER And by the way a good leader, a good political leader can find that balance between complacency and panic and say truth and speak about with transparency about what we know. Here’s what we know, we don’t think you should panic. Here’s what we need to know and we’re looking for it, but in the meantime, do what’s precautionary,

what’s appropriate and, and, but you know some leaders have, do that

naturally and we can tell that and we elect them.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON All right, I think we got to end it there.

CHUCK NICE Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Irwin, thanks for coming, I haven’t seen you in years. Don’t be a stranger.

IRWIN REDLENER Can we fix that or no?

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Yeah, no we’ll find another excuse to get you back on this show.

IRWIN REDLENER Sure.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Maybe for an update in a few months.

IRWIN REDLENER Sure.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Just to see…

IRWIN REDLENER Any time.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON If we, if it gets worse will want more of you, but so will everyone else.

CHUCK NICE And if it gets worse, we’ll do it via Skype.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah, just don’t come over to my house, that’s all.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON All right Dr. Irwin Redlener, the Director of the   National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Columbia University. You also went to medical school, is that correct?

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON That’s a double title there.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON Excellent. And Chuck always good to have you here.

CHUCK NICE Always a pleasure.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON I’m going to fist bump that, no shaking hands.

CHUCK NICE Here we go. Boom. Boom. Look at that.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON All right, no COVID-19 there.

IRWIN REDLENER Yeah.

NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON You’ve been watching, possibly listening to StarTalk Cosmic Queries: Disaster Preparedness Edition. I’m Neil deGrasse Tyson. As always, bidding you, to keep looking up.

[MUSIC UP & UNDER]

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