World War III Has Already Begun

soldiers Krabi, Kingdom of Thailand, during the opening ceremony of Hanuman Guardian
Soldiers assigned to Alpha Company, Task Force Cacti, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, and Royal Thai Army soldiers stand at parade rest during a speech March 30, 2020, at Krabi, Kingdom of Thailand, during the opening ceremony of Hanuman Guardian 20-2 exercise. (Ezra Camarena/U.S. Army)

Peter D. Zimmerman, a physicist, was chief scientist of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the anthrax attacks and chief scientist of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of National Security Leaders for Biden and The Steady State.

World War III has started. You may not have noticed it's a war to the death, because this is combat without bombs or bullets. Our enemy is the SARS-Cov-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. It has exactly one purpose: conquering your cells and turning them into factories to make more viruses.

We are losing the war, badly. About 400,000 American soldiers died in the 43 months we fought in World War II; 203,000 Americans died in the first 7 months of World War III. Fact: Americans are being killed by this virus at a rate three times faster than our soldiers were killed by German and Japanese bullets.

For a few months it seemed as if we were winning, but the virus has opened new fronts and is colonizing new territories. A third wave is spreading across the United States. Despite President Trump's optimism, there are no proven treatments, no "cures." There is no vaccine that provides real protection.

We are, all of us, cannon fodder in this war, and it is time to recognize the fact. But we are not defenseless. Just as our troops don body armor before going into battle, we have physical protection. Just as our generals study strategy and tactics to defeat a human enemy, we know how to deploy our resources to end the Coronavirus reign of terror.

But first, let's suppose we got a vaccine by the end of the year. If it's like most vaccines, it will only be 50% to 80% effective. Even if you've had the jab, if you get exposed to the virus you could have the chance of a coin flip of getting infected.

Some people don't get very sick. My daughter caught the bug a few months ago, lost her sense of taste for two weeks, and felt poorly. And then she bounced back to normal. Many victims go through a week or two of agony, short of breath, aching badly, running a high fever, but then get well. Some are sick for months. And about 1% of all those who get sick, well, they die.

There isn't enough Regeneron for everybody; the latest studies say Remdesivir doesn't help much, if at all.

Suppose you get a vaccine and trust it. Go into a crowd where there are sick people including some who don't know they're carriers. And you have a 1 in 200 chance of dying. I wouldn't cross the street if I thought there was a 1 in 200 chance it would put me in a coffin.

For now, we lack any biomedical defenses against COVID-19. A vaccine won't be magic armor. Vaccines don't always work; there is no way to know if your shot worked for you.

If a vaccine becomes available next month, when will you be able to get it? Not immediately. It could be months before there is enough for every American. It will probably take two shots, a few weeks apart, to give you a good chance of immunity. And it will take months upon months to line up everybody and get them protected. Probably not before June.

Related: The Latest Rundown on the Military's Coronavirus Cases 

We do have, however, good physical defenses against COVID-19. They are a lot more certain to give protection even than a vaccine. Far into the future, physical protection will be important to crush this bug. Herd immunity didn't work in Sweden, and anyway, getting there will cost 100,000 lives.

The hardest tool to use in epidemiology is quarantine. Stay home; lock down the economy; hold until there are no new cases. With a strict quarantine, this disease would have been crushed 150,000 lives ago. Quarantine works, but people don't like it. Even putting limits on public behavior is hard; I want to go to a restaurant, want to hug my daughter, and see my son. But staying home gives me a much better chance to avoid COVID and to keep them from getting it.

I also wear anti-virus body armor, just as my daughter, a noncombatant in Afghanistan had, to wear her armor. Mine is lighter, and cheaper; it's just a simple surgical mask. In February when there weren't enough masks to protect our doctors and nurses, we were asked not to use scarce supplies. Doctors and nurses were at greater risk. But that was a long time ago; masks are widely available now.

A good mask will prevent anywhere from 50% to 90% of Covid infections. That's more protection than ceramic armor and a helmet give a soldier. If you wouldn't go on patrol in a war zone without your helmet, don't leave home without your antivirus gear. It's not a matter of courage or masculinity. It's good sense.

Protect yourself, and protect your family. Wear the damn mask!

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Find more information on how to submit your own commentary.


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Opinion Coronavirus/COVID-19