Kucharski spoke to WIRED from London, where he lives. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.WIRED: I want to ask about something you tweeted just a few minutes ago. It was an excerpt from a book by the British geographer Richard Burton about mosquitoes and malaria. Could you describe what he wrote and why it left an impression?Adam Kucharski: In the book I dig into the history of many principles of transmission, and one thing that struck me was this quote by a British geographer in the 1850s. Burton noted that in Somalia local people were drawing a link between the rise of mosquitoes in a given season and these fevers, which were probably malarial fevers. And he was very dismissive. He called it superstition. At the time, a lot of the thinking around malaria, certainly in the West, was one of “bad air.” The word malaria comes from mala aria—Italian for bad air. And it was very interesting to see that there were cultures in the world that hit on this other link. But it would take decades for the supposedly “enlightened” Western scientists to reach that same connection. It really does illustrate with some of these ideas that history is more complex than perhaps we think. In many cases, the credit is given very prominently to certain individuals without acknowledging some of the deeper origins.
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WIRED: It’s not a perfect analogy, but when I read that, I couldn't help but think about the relearning of facts and evidence that’s happening right now with Covid-19. Other countries had learned a lot from diseases like SARS. Wuhan had months to learn about this virus before it spread widely in the US and Europe. Now we’re here rediscovering the effectiveness of things like masks.
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AK: I think that's a very important point. Learning from what other countries are doing and not making the same mistakes again is crucial. It was quite striking how a lot of the discourse around the Ebola outbreaks, for example, was at times quite patronizing. People were saying, ‘We know how to control this. We know what measures work, so why aren't people doing them? Why aren't people just doing what they should be doing to reduce transmission?’ And of course, we've now got major epidemics in a number of countries that supposedly had high levels of preparedness. But transmission is not going down, because people aren't following those supposedly obvious things that can help reduce transmission. So I think it shows that the challenges are far more fundamental than we think they are, and we have to look widely for solutions to a problem this great. It's not the case that one group or one country is going to have the answers.
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