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Musings on Epsilon
Nothing has changed; We are completely failing to get ready for the next big thing
In February of 2025, the first cases of the Epsilon virus are documented in Argentina. Epsilon is not actually a Coronavirus, but by the time this information is beaten through the thick-ish skulls of legacy media, the name has stuck; the longer official name of the virus goes mainly unused.
Lacking the backing of a robust tradition of epidemiology, the initial data gathered is sparse but frightening. Once adjustments for the generally low quality of Belizian rural healthcare are taken into account, it looks like Epsilon will be similarly contagious as compared to Covid-19, but roughly 10 times as fatal if nothing else changes in our general handling of epidemics.
To get possible confusion out of the way quickly, this is a parable; there’s no Epsilon right now, as far as I know. This article is about talking about what we can probably expect if there was; if you were getting ready to panic purely because you thought this was a real thing today, then take a deep breath - everything is pretty much as under control today as it was yesterday.
On the flip side, this article is definitely about getting you to panic for other reasons, or at least getting you to panic in ways consistent with your own personal stated hysteria thresholds. It’s also about what we say we care about being thrown into contrast with what we focus on; this always matters, but especially matters here when you likely feel either lives or lifestyles are on the line.
I think the first thing to cover here is how easily this all could have been worse. In the italics-world I’m projecting above, we are talking about something like a 1000% increase in deaths. Is this extreme or unlikely? Possibly. But it’s certainly not impossible.
With the CDC currently estimating 120,200,000 US cases of Covid and something like 720,000 deaths, that’s a death rate of ~0.6%. A 6% death rate might seem outside of the realm of possibility, but some 6 million people were hospitalized for Covid, and our hospitals were stretched to bursting in a lot of cases accommodating those - any increase in severity or transmission rates would likely have a disproportionate effect on death rates beyond what you’d expect from a flat increase in numbers alone.
Or, to think of it another way: about six million people were hospitalized for Covid; if covid was severe enough that about 50% of those hospitalizations resulted in death, we’d be at 5x based on that.
Or, to think about it another way: You probably don’t think Covid was an intentionally engineered super-weapon, but you also likely understand that the technology to weaponize viruses on the scale of global pandemics isn’t that far off in any case. If we haven’t seen a 10x Covid virus yet, it would still be weirder than not if one didn’t exist in the next 20 years even if only in a petri dish.
If you just can’t imagine something worse than Covid, I get it; it’s not a strictly enforced prerequisite for reading the article. But even if Covid is a providence-enforced modern-age epidemic maximum and we will never see anything worse, it honestly should be bad enough; 720k deaths is huge. The effect on the economy was horrifying. Even on a cultural/social level we paid huge costs in terms of lost time with friends and family and involuntary hermit-like existence.
Covid could have been much, much worse, but even if it couldn’t it’s nothing we want to experience again.
The good news is that Moderna and Pfizer aren’t sitting on their hands. Well before the general public is aware of the enormity of the threat posed by Epsilon, they have a working vaccine in hand, just as was the case with Covid-19. Better news is that the vaccines are broadly similar to the mRNA vaccines used for Covid; the ramp up times necessary for production of the vaccine in the last pandemic are essentially eliminated here.
If we were are Utilitarians, we would probably broadly probably want similar things out of our next potential pandemic regardless of our individual beliefs on what’s “really happening”. In particular, we’d all want vaccines to be available quickly - whether you believe a risk is real (or not) or that the vaccine is dangerous (or not), you want it on the market post-haste; even at a minimum pandemic-is-real-and-vaccines-are-good belief buy-in, you at least know the powers that be won’t let your life go back to normal until there’s some treatment on the market they can point to and cheer for.
In the case of Covid, we all had a pretty good idea that it was going to be a big deal around March. As is now generally known, a working Covid vaccine was on the ground in late February; if we had been able to get it into serious production fast, an awful lot of lock-downs and deaths could have been mitigated. But we weren’t fast, really; as the article above notes, late-stage testing wasn’t underway until nearly August, and doses weren’t truly being put into arms until December, nine or 10 months after even laymen know this was a pretty big deal.
I wrote about this before, basically blasting the FDA for being incredibly inflexible with the way they test drugs, prioritizing the elimination of a relatively small risk to a relatively small amount of test subjects (who were begging to be allowed to participate in challenge trials) against the almost sure deaths of millions if they didn’t move quickly.
At the time, there were two criticisms I found pretty compelling about why it might have been harder to move quickly on the vaccine than I understood. The first was that ramp-up times for the actual production of the drugs might not have actually lagged FDA approvals by that much, that the production capacity wasn’t and couldn’t be in place to produce enough mRNA vaccines any faster. If that’s the case, the FDA taking their sweet-ass time to make sure they have sufficient pieces of paper in filing cabinets to outweigh millions of deaths doesn’t matter; we couldn’t get any shots any quicker anyway.
The second criticism is that mRNA treatments and particularly mRNA vaccines were pretty new; there might have been some hidden fears about them that were legitimate for the FDA to hold but not particularly public at the time (or now, for that matter).
Both those criticisms might have been valid, but neither are valid now - mRNA-vaccine facilities are up and running and pumping out millions of doses, and we have a much better understanding of people’s reaction to them. The only hurdle left is FDA approvals — if they do what’s needed to get a reasonable assurance of safety and give a thumbs up to the Pharma companies, our hypothetical Epsilon virus could potentially be taking hits from a vaccine in half the time or less than it took in the case of Covid.
The only hang-up is the FDA has no intention of doing this, and is signaling as hard as they can that they hate the idea of this with every single fiber of their being. If you think Covid is bad and think that vaccines play a major role in stopping it, the thing you should want the very most right now is for the FDA to grant full approval to the vaccines; it would increase confidence in the vaccines a bit, get more people to take the shot, and we’d be that much closer to the promised land.
And there’s no reason for the FDA not to do this right now from a safety perspective. Note that the entire world is on the “jab as many arms as possible” train; literally everyone except the hard-core anti-vax think this is a good idea and a huge net positive. Even if it wasn’t, over half of everyone in the US has already got the shot; it’s a done deal. The only plausible reason left for the FDA to want to slow-play this at this point is to cover their asses, but “cover our asses” is the only thing the FDA has ever cared about, so if a few more million people die, it’s no big deal to them.
There’s no indication at all we won’t wait nine months or a year for the next vaccine, no matter what the projected death tolls are. The FDA is telling us as loud as it can that it would be completely fine with hundreds of millions of people dying as long as it could stick to it’s habits, and we aren’t listening.
Another potential difference in how the world will approach Epsilon is understated but important — preparedness. Lockdowns and the disruptions that come with them are as expensive as epidemic-related deaths are horrible, but preventative measures are relatively cheap. Masks can be stockpiled; money can be pumped to pharma companies to maintain production capacity. Early detection of viruses like Epsilon can be emphasized. There’s dozens of practical ways to get on top of the disease quicker and reduce it’s impact that have nothing to do with vaccines - we just have to do them.
Covid was expensive. I’ve seen estimates of double-digit trillions of dollars of pandemic related impact, and while I am pretty strictly not quant these don’t seem inherently unreasonable to me. Given that, you’d think we’d be scrambling to establish some level of reasonable spending to try and prevent or minimize that kind of impact in the future.
The CARES act alone was something like $2 trillion. Just the portion paid out directly as stimulus to taxpayers was something like $300 billion; that’s three times what was initially proposed to put towards getting ready for other potentially worse pandemics to come. All the news we have on this is that there’s basically no interest in paying anything but lip service to getting ready for anything.
In the end, Epsilon plays out in entirely predictable ways; in the US alone, 6 million people die before vaccines are widely available roughly a year later. We end up being no more prepared for it than we were for Covid; we move no faster and try no harder. Lockdowns are much more severe and infinitely more necessary. One out of every 35 people you know is dead, the global economy is in shambles such as have never been seen before. Everyone agrees that this is terrible out loud, but there is a silent, implicit agreement that we will never do anything differently or change how we handle anything at all.
That last set of italics is hyperbolic; I’m aware of this, but I’m also pretty upset, so I’m leaving it as-is perhaps against my better judgement.
Before Covid hit, the idea of a pandemic causing 700k deaths in the US would have seemed outlandish to most of us. If I had asked then if it would be reasonable for, say, the FDA to take a year to approve a complete, working vaccine in that situation, many would have called me silly for asking that - of course there would be some emergency measure that would make it go faster.
If I asked you if after that kind of body-bag count whether or not it would be sane for the government to balk at spending a tiny fraction of the known costs of a pandemic to perhaps prepare for the next one, the reaction would be the same. Of course we should work on getting ready for the next one; of course we wouldn’t sit around just waiting for a new disaster to hit us upside the head with a baseball bat without doing anything at all.
I pushed the idea of a disease with 10 times the death toll of Covid for a reason — 700k deaths (millions worldwide) is the new norm; it probably doesn’t have the same impact now as a reality that it would have had as an unrealistic hypothetical back then. I want you to think about this in terms of crazy, insane numbers of potential deaths, because seven hundred thousand deaths *should* still feel crazy to you, even if it doesn’t.
The FDA particularly and the government in general are signaling that they are pretty much OK with Covid levels of loss or worse happening again and again; they are letting you know loud and clear that they don’t actually mind this kind of thing enough to get even a little bit out of their comfort zone. In response to this, we are generally quiet — most people retain a religious belief that the FDA really should let millions of people die for nebulously defined reasons like “maintaining trust” without any evidence or arguments for why indirectly murdering people would promote such confidence. Virtually nobody cares about government preparedness.
We should absolutely be doing more than this. We should be demanding some sort of stated plan for expediting vaccines in emergency situations, something better than “whenever we get to it - this is how it’s always been done”. We should be asking for some level of planning for the next big virus — globalism and CRISPR basically guarantee something like Epsilon is coming sooner or later. This is probably the lamest thing I’ll say all week, but I’m saying it anyway: You should probably write your Senator. He or she doesn’t realistically care if you die or not, but they do care an awful lot about staying in their jobs. Actual demands that they push plans to mitigate the next disaster might work, so long as we actually make them. With the internet, it won’t even cost you a stamp.
If I’m a bit hysterical about this, it’s because I really do think we should be a bit hysterical at this point. I now live in a world where I can say things like “so many people died last year that used cars got way more expensive somehow” and not be substantially wrong. We have a choice between panicking and making demands now, or doing it later after the damage is already done. I say we be productive now. Make some noise.