A cure for the common cold

7 December 2007

The last couple of weeks have been miserable at times. My son got a particularly nasty cold, which he passed on to me (I’m sure you get a megadose of virus from babies) and which seems to last for a fortnight.

“The common cold”, of course, is really a description of a particular set of symptoms. These can be caused by some very different viruses, some of which have been identified only in the past few years. There are undoubtedly others which have yet to be identified.

The diversity of these viruses, and the ability of some of them to mutate so fast they can repeatedly evade our immune system, means there’s never going to be a single effective treatment or vaccine against the common cold anytime soon. And with so many more hosts for them to mutate in than ever before – six billion and counting – I do worry that more nasty strains will emerge than before.

I’ve sometimes wondered if there is a simple way to eliminate the common cold.

Imagine if we planned an Global Cold Elimination Fortnight or Month. Basically, everyone who could stay at home would have to stay at home for at least a couple of weeks. All non-essential flights, trains, cars, bicycles and pedestrians would be halted. Those who absolutely had to go in to work, at power stations or hospitals, say, would wear biosafety suits and undergo screening if rapid tests become available, or both. At the end of the period, rigorous measures would be put in place to identify any outbreaks and contain them.

Done properly, it could eliminate many if not all of the dozens of cold viruses circulating in the population. Of course, in time new cold-like viruses would appear as animal viruses jumped into humans, but this will happen anyway and could prevented by a swift and effective reaction. Think SARS. It might eliminate many other viruses as well, from the vomit and diarrhoea-fest that is Norfolk virus to flu strains (although flu is so common in birds it will inevitably jump back into humans).

Now of course I realise this is never going to happen, in our lifetimes at least. Too many parts of the world are in too much chaos for this to be organised even if the agreement and will was there. And the agreement would never be forthcoming. The waaa-why-can’t-I-want-to-do-whatever-I-want-to-do-and-fuck-everyone-else brigade would declare it a federalist plot by Washington and Brussels, as they do any attempt to coordinate a global response to common threats such as climate change. The imams would declare it a plot against Islam. The capitalists would call it a communist plot… you get the picture.

But it does make sense economically. I haven’t been able to find any reliable figures for days lost to colds per year per worker, but some put it as high as 7 sick days a year. Even if you assume the average is just two, stopping the world for a couple of weeks would pay for itself in just five years. OK, everyone staying home at the same time isn’t the same as sick days spread among the population and in time, but the figures are probably in the same ball park.