How Covid-19 is changing the flu

How Covid-19 is changing the flu

It was the first time the Sapanawa tribe had ever made contact. The meeting occurred in the remote Serra do Divisor National Park – a vast area of the Amazon basin in the far west of Brazil. From the sky, it looks like a uniform stretch of unbroken forest; concealed beneath are waterfalls, rivers, dormant volcanos and

It was the first time the Sapanawa tribe had ever made contact.

The meeting occurred in the remote Serra do Divisor National Park – a vast area of the Amazon basin in the far west of Brazil. From the sky, it looks like a uniform stretch of unbroken forest; concealed beneath are waterfalls, rivers, dormant volcanos and human villages. This is a place where giant armadillos, tapirs and jaguars roam the landscape, and uncontacted peoples live largely as they have done for some 32,000 years. 

But for one isolated tribe, everything changed in 2014. Several members of the Sapanawa strayed out of their time warp after fleeing violent attacks from logging gangs across the border in Peru. They raided the village of another remote tribe, who had settled down and made contact with modern civilisation decades ago. Afterwards, they spent three weeks in the company of FUNAI, a government body that protects indigenous people from the outside world.

Indigenous Amazonians are anomalies in almost every way – they speak ancient, little-known languages, some of which lack words for numbers and even colours. Their societies are often egalitarian. And they are also among the only communities on Earth not to suffer from the diseases which plague the rest of humanity. Some uncontacted peoples – though not all – have never experienced the misery of having a cold or the flu, or other more life-threatening illnesses such as measles.

For the Sapanawa, this fragile disease-free state ended remarkably quickly after their first contact. Within days, many became gravely unwell; they had caught a respiratory infection, probably influenza. When tribes are first exposed to the flu, the fatality rate is usually extremely high. But on this occasion, there was a happy ending. The raiders received medical treatment and no one died, so after a brief period of quarantine, they returned home to their people. As far as anyone knows, this was the end of that flu epidemic.

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The presence of flu-free societies raises an important question: could the rest of the world ever be rid of this virus? As it happens, the world is making some tantalising first steps towards this goal.

Back in January 2020, at the end of the Australian summer, the country had 6,962 cases of the flu confirmed via a laboratory test. At this time, Covid-19 was still known only as “the novel coronavirus” and mostly confined to China. Ordinarily, you would have expected to see more and more cases of the flu as the days became shorter and winter descended.

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