The Corner


What Happens When a Nation of Elderly Smokers Faces a Viral Respiratory Illness?

An investor smokes a cigarette in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Fuyang, Anhui province, China, September 14, 2015. (Stringer/Reuters)

I’m not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.

As we speak — er, write and read — concerns about the coronavirus outbreaks outside China are stomping the Dow Jones Industrial Average like a group of Hell’s Angels who discovered a narc in their ranks. South Korea is up to 750 cases, Italy is up to 130, and the Iranian government is denying a report that 50 people died in Qom, saying that only 12 have died nationwide.

Based upon the data available, the death rate from the coronavirus among men is 2.8 percent, compared with 1.7 percent among women. Medical researchers are trying to figure this out, and a potential issue is visible on almost every street corner in the country: A lot of Chinese men smoke, and very few women do. The rate of tobacco smoking among Chinese men is astonishing — 52 percent of all men over age 15, while only 2 to 3 percent of Chinese women smoke.

A study back in 2015 predicted that by 2030, two million Chinese per year would be dying from health complications related to smoking.

Now introduce the coronavirus, where patients “in serious condition have inflamed lungs whose tiny alveoli fill with water and pus, and are unable to make the oxygen exchange effectively.” When you take a man’s lungs that are already impeded by years of smoking, and then add a severe respiratory illness . . . you’re probably going to end up with a really risky situation. Of course, there may be multiple factors for the disparity in the death rate among men and women. SARS was deadlier among male mice, and presumably those laboratory mice were not heavy smokers.

But if the coronavirus death rate is connected to smoking, China is confronting a colossal problem. The country has 240 million to 250 million people over age 60. The good news is that more of them are women than men, because fewer Chinese men reach age 60 than Chinese women. But you’re still looking at 120 million or so men over 60, and of those, let’s assume half of them are smokers. That’s 60 million older men who are at risk of succumbing to coronavirus.

There’s one other point to make, about the rumor that the coronavirus is the accidental result of Chinese biological weapons research. Yes, the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory works with dangerous pathogens.

We don’t know the full scope of the sources and methods of the U.S. intelligence community. But you would like to think that the CIA, NSA, DIA, and all of our various other intelligence organizations would be keeping as close an eye as possible on places like the Wuhan National Biosafety Laboratory and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. You would like to think that the National Reconnaissance Office — that other highly-regarded NRO — would be watching a site like that with satellites closely and would notice any unusual activity. You would like to think that the National Security Agency’s extensive abilities to eavesdrop on phone calls, read e-mails and texts, and monitor all forms of electronic communication would be focused on the highest levels of the Chinese military and the Chinese government. And this isn’t even getting into the human sources of the United States and its allies.

If the coronavirus were an accidentally-released bioweapon, and the Chinese government knew it, they would have a difficult time hiding it from the various intelligence agencies watching them.


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