Today the World Health Organization (WHO) will hold an emergency meeting to discuss the ongoing monkeypox outbreak. According to initial reports, the meeting will focus on how the virus is spread and vaccination — with talk of repurposing stocks of a smallpox vaccine for close contacts of infected people. Sounds reasonable. And yet the talk about monkeypox is alarmist on both sides of the Covid-19 debate — from those who favour restrictions, and from those who don’t.
Kit Yates, a prominent member of Independent-SAGE, tweeted that we would soon be “hearing the ‘It’s time we learned to live with Monkeypox’ takes” from politicians who have “stopped giving a fuck about public health”.
At the other extreme, Maajid Nawaz claimed that “the global palace coup” will soon see an attempt to bring in new lockdowns, in line with the proposed WHO pandemic treaty — and pointed to Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ prediction in November 2021 that the next pandemic could come from smallpox (to which monkeypox is related).
So should we be worried? Let’s consider monkeypox first. Cases have been detected in the Western world, from Australia to the UK and the US — but in small numbers (a mere 20 cases in the UK). Moreover, unlike Covid-19, this is not a “new virus”. It’s been circulating in equatorial Africa since the 1970s. It can quite often affect people there without causing any alarm elsewhere at all — in 2021, 75 people died of monkeypox in the Democratic Republic of Congo, without any sign that anyone cared or was asking, as the New Scientist did in an alarmist headline yesterday, “Could monkeypox become a pandemic?”
On the other hand, immunity to monkeypox may be waning — as the Institut Pasteur suggested in September 2020. Declining herd immunity to smallpox may also be increasing susceptibility to monkeypox. Still, none of the evidence suggests cause for real alarm. Symptoms are mild among most of those who get infected. Moreover, monkeypox is not highly transmissible: on Wednesday Dr Michael Head, a virologist at Imperial College London explained that close physical contact is required for spread.
What’s alarming is not monkeypox, but the extreme responses on both sides. It looks like yet another wave of media hysteria of the kind all too common since Covid-19 emerged two years ago. Talk of automatic lockdowns for monkeypox are also alarming. This is not likely to be what Bill Gates calls “the next major outbreak”, though some appear to be preparing to treat it that way.
Is the noun “pandemic” only used when a virus offers a moderate threat in rich countries — and to hell with pathogens which afflict low income countries? Today’s WHO meeting can provide the answer. A sane response will douse alarmist talk, and make it clear that this is not “the next major outbreak”. Anything else will only fan the hysterical headlines and make a return to normal — or even partial rationality — ever more distant.