COVID-19 and FusionMarch 17, 2020
Like the rest of the world, we are focused right now on the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19. Rightly so, because this pandemic could kill millions. We at LPPFusion are taking what precautions we can. We will not participate in conferences, most of which are being cancelled in any case. We are disinfecting and practicing social distancing.
At first glance, this viral threat does not seem to have much to do with the long-term energy crisis the world faces, but in fact there are several important connections. First, the short-term threat of COVID-19 and the long-term threat of fossil fuels both endanger the lives and health of millions of people worldwide. While a pandemic like that in 1918 could kill millions, we know that air pollution due to fossil fuel consumption will kill over 7 million people in this year alone.
Second, the fossil fuel crisis actually makes COVID-19 worse. Medical studies have shown that high levels of air pollution, almost entirely due to fossil fuel combustion, weaken the lungs of both older and very young people, making them more vulnerable to pneumonia. This may be part of the reason that COVID-19 mortality rates are higher in the heavily industrialized—and heavily polluted—city of Wuhan, where the virus originated, than elsewhere.
In addition, the economic costs of high-priced fossil fuels divert trillions of dollars annually from the health expenditures needed to maintain the population and to prepare for epidemics. WHO has expressed deep concern for the spread of COVID-19 in Africa, where medical facilities are totally inadequate. Africa right now spends more on oil consumption alone than on health care. In the United States, despite high expenditures on health care, hospital beds per capita have been cut in half over the past four decades.
Last, and most important, both threats require crash research and production programs, coordinated by the world’s major governments, which are not yet taking place. Leading health organizations like the WHO and CDC have warned that quarantines are unlikely to stop a disease as infectious as COVID-19. While the low infection rates in warm climates like Singapore give some hope that the disease may slow dramatically as spring arrives, it is also likely to roar back in the fall. The best way to stop such a virus is with a vaccine. But no government has yet initiated the sort of large-scale crash program that could develop a vaccine in time to help this year.
Worse, no government has tried to prepare for such an outbreak by building up the emergency capacity to both develop and mass-produce a vaccine in the case of a deadly outbreak. Nor have most governments, emphatically including that of the US, where our lab is located, built up significant reserves of medical equipment. It is not as if COVID-19 came out of the blue. This is the third coronavirus, along with SARS and MERS, to threaten a pandemic, and scientists have known of the threat for decades. But the crash program of research and production needed to develop an emergency response never occurred. Such a program is urgently needed right now.
To give a concrete example, for the 10% of coronavirus patients who get critically ill, ventilators to assist their breathing are the only way to preserve life. In the United States, health experts estimate that the need for ventilators may run into the millions at the height of the pandemic. But only 70,000 of these complex machines are available in the entire US. A crash production program, coordinated by the Federal government, might just possibly be able to produce machines that could save millions of lives. But nothing of the sort is being done. Indeed, where we are located there are no plans at the national, state, county or local level for what happens when the ventilators and intensive care units are all fully occupied. Unfortunately, the US government has not even been able to organize the sort of mass testing that has slowed the virus in South Korea. There is not even discussion of the national mobilization required.
A crash program for fusion research is also exactly what is needed to end the crisis of fossil fuel production as rapidly as possible. Only fusion energy can provide the cheap, clean, safe and inexhaustible energy needed to replace fossil fuels entirely. That would clean up the air and free up trillions of dollars for health care, and emergency reserves, among other critical needs. LPPFusion has long advocated an international government crash program to fund research for all possible routes to fusion.