There are more viruses on earth than stars in the universe, so let’s be ready for them all
As the trees blossom, the full colour of our own lives is on the brink of re-emerging. It’s still startling how a genome just 30 kilobases in size turned the world on its head. In the short term, progress has laid in the hands of a vaccine, its discovery, and distribution. But going forward, we need a much more significant shift in the way we think about how we protect ourselves.
It will happen again
The past 12 months have come down to one novel virus. Yet there are an estimated 10 nonillion (10 to the 31st power) more individual viruses on our planet. In 2011, Matt Damon starred in the movie Contagion, which explained what an R-number was and foretold the concept of social distancing. In 2015, Ezra Klein of Vox spoke with Bill Gates about an algorithm for how a new strain of flu could spread rapidly, writing “a pandemic disease is the most predictable catastrophe in the history of the human race”. And in January 2020, the Netflix documentary ’Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak’ became the most eerily timed release in entertainment history. We were caught horrifically off-guard, and we can’t depend on nature to give us a hundred years before the next crisis emerges. Now is our chance to work out what we need to change.
Prevention, not cure
Our systems of healthcare are fragile. Throughout 2020, confused by different data, we asked ourselves questions: what is it are we running from, and who are we trying to protect? Vulnerable groups of people began to be defined. Then we realised some of us would experience no symptoms at all. So the real enemy ended up being hospital capacity risk, causing a range of dilemmas and forcing lockdowns. This capacity has been in decline for some years.
For a range of reasons, these declines underpin a healthcare system focused on treatment over prevention. As we move forward, we are already witnessing a healthcare dispersion away from hospitals and into our homes. With the most prominent players looking for new lucrative markets to go after, healthcare is ripe for disruption. As Amazon, Android and Apple occupy more of our lives, detailed pictures of our health status can emerge, spotting things before they happen. Not only can we be consulted in our homes, but we can do so knowing that we listen to Jay-Z while running, enjoy a weekend Dorito nacho binge and have rising high-density lipoproteins. We will be moving to a capability that can support prevention, not just cure.
There is a clear need for this. Our publicly available healthcare systems, government-funded or not, are a limited resource. Our proactivity is the best source of funding we can give, taking pressure off services like the NHS by taking better care of ourselves.
The power lies within us
Our immunity, or our lack thereof, has already changed the world dramatically over the last 12 months. Rolling out vaccinations can only work effectively if our immunity itself enables vaccines to take hold. Our interest in immunity has risen dramatically, and the category for immunity products is up 52% year-on-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Studies show how intakes of Vitamin D, C and zinc are vital to our ability to fight harm.
Brands have also been quick to respond, adding claims to their packaging that aren’t worth the stickers they’re printed on. Adding tiny amounts of nutrients doesn’t make a difference and can result in us dosing up on sugar instead. RDA (recommended daily allowance) limits have barely changed since World War II. The pharma aisle for vitamins and minerals hasn’t seen innovation since the 1990s and is, like the broader healthcare picture, focused on treating symptoms, not root causes. Often, these treatments can further weaken your immune system.
From immunity to Ikigai
In a world where mental health has become so important, we can afford to recognise the power of physical resilience too. Let’s connect our enlightenment on mindfulness, gratitude and relationships to the realities of our immunobiology: an interconnected system of skin membranes, antibody responses and T-cells. We know that these membranes are affected by diet, and T-cells are responsive to exercise. We also know that happiness and stress affect how well we can fight off a cold. We’ve already adopted Japanese concepts like Ikigai (our inner sense of purpose). But Ikigai can’t help if our immunity levels are weak: the two are all part of one analogue cell-based human called you.
We can boost our immunity through simple drinks
We need to fix our misunderstanding of immunity and embed it as a source code for the future. Tonic Health’s products are about getting highly intensive doses of vitamins and minerals that naturally boost our immune system. In just 18 months, Tonic has seen exponential growth (over 1000%) from its humble launch at the end of 2019. As its first national advertising campaign goes live supporting a new national Sainsbury’s listing, it would be easy to think this is just a product finding market-fit. But behind Tonic is a more significant movement to help us act preventatively, tread more lightly on our healthcare services and ultimately move everyone towards being a more protected people in a viral world.
In our busy lives, being ill slows us down when we don’t need to be. More widely, we can’t fend off every new virus with vaccines if we simultaneously negate our immunity responsibilities. There is a power that lies within us, and it may be the greatest we have. And whether we are conscious of it or not, we can’t live whole, happy (safe) lives unless immunity is integral to our broader wellbeing debates. Our immunity has to become faster, better, stronger; only then can the world do the same.
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