Comparing COVID-19 with the Pittsburgh Virus

Medical photo created by kjpargeter –

Okay, so I’ve resisted this for a while, but with so many people reminding me that my book, The New World, is about a virus which fractures our American republic, I decided I would weigh in on the subject, contrasting the Pittsburgh Virus with COVID-19. So here are six differences between the two.

  1. The Pittsburgh Virus and COVID-19 originated half-a-world apart. By now everyone knows the story of how someone at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, China was infected with a virus from an animal, and from there it spread around the world. The Pittsburgh Virus, on the other hand, is a uniquely American pathogen. While my book doesn’t reveal details about its origin, it is safe to say that there were no foreign agents or nefarious plots at work behind its appearance. In fact, that’s a part of the tragedy of it all, a country on the brink was pushed over the brink by a chance of nature.
  2. The Pittsburgh Virus was more deadly than COVID-19. In The New World, fifty-eight million people die from the virus in nineteen states. Of course, in fiction viruses will almost always be more deadly than in reality, otherwise they contribute little to the story. While any life lost is tragic, thankfully the predictions of COVID-19 deaths have not panned out as the early models suggested.
  3. The Pittsburgh Virus was contained more effectively than COVID-19. COVID-19 is a worldwide pandemic. Politicians and pundits have argued over the wisdom of travel bans, but travel has clearly contributed to its spread. The Pittsburgh Virus, on the other hand, was contained by enacting strict travel restrictions which effectively quarantined a block of nineteen states. The advantage of setting my story sixty years in the future is that I could justify the extreme response to the crisis more easily. After these last few weeks, that response seems more realistic than ever.
  4. The Pittsburgh Virus genetically altered a portion of the population. Now, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that COVID-19 won’t alter our DNA, creating genetically enhanced people. The truth is, however, that viruses do change our DNA. According to, “viral genetic material comprises nearly 10 percent of the modern human genome.” Of course, that’s the cumulative effect since the beginning of time, so chances are one virus will not make a big genetic splash except on the pages of books like mine.
  5. The Pittsburgh Virus fractured the nation beyond repair. In The New World, it was the trigger that led to America’s ultimate demise. At this point you might be saying, “Have you seen social media lately?” I’ll grant you that our nation is more polarized than it has been in a long time, and COVID-19 has contributed to that, but we are not on the brink, and COVID-19 won’t put us there. That’s not to say America is not changing in ways that are troubling. Many of you have responded to my book by noting how it reflects the contemporary political landscape in one way or another. Thankfully, the comparisons are tenuous in my opinion.
  6. The Pittsburgh Virus is fictitious, COVID-19 is not. This is the most important distinction. Viruses abound in dystopian literature because they provide the author a way to change the world in ways that advance the story. But in the last few weeks, we’ve seen how a real pandemic impacts lives in devastating ways. Standing in line outside the grocery store with people wearing masks has felt a little dystopian to me. Living in a city where restaurant dining rooms are barren because people are afraid to gather has been, up to this point in my life, the stuff of fiction. Now it’s reality, and it is a reminder to all of us how fragile our society is.

By now you are, no doubt, very familiar with COVID-19. If you are not as familiar with the Pittsburgh Virus, click here to buy The New World, and read about it.


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