A Modest Proposal: We Should Hibernate Through the Rest of the Pandemic

We are about to face a very bleak winter due to COVID-19. If we could induce torpor in humans, we could sleep through the whole thing.
September 29, 2020, 1:00pm
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Humanity got a taste of what a winter with COVID-19 would be like back in March, filled with masks, hand sanitizer, lockdowns, and widespread fear and death. After a summer that, for some, was filled with outdoor dining, park hangouts, and socially distant hikes, we are now staring down a bleak winter. It'd certainly be better to hibernate through the whole thing.

“This is likely to be a challenging winter for a lot of people,” Jennifer Veitch, a National Research Council of Canada Principal Research Officer, said.

Considering this winter will be full of isolation, cold and dark, and an increased risk of infecting or being infected by other people, getting out of bed seems like more work than it’s worth. In fact, if the upwards of seven billion people on Earth just decided to hibernate—or more accurately in this case, enter a state of torpor—it could save everyone a lot of grief and cut COVID-19 transmission rates. As far as big-brain practical solutions go: going to bed and entering a bear-like trance is a great one, with only a few, minor points against it. 

Having literally every human being enter a deep state or torpor or metabolic depression could very well interrupt COVID-19’s chain of transmission. Between schools starting up again, people trying to spend time with family and friends and, broadly, respiratory viruses striking harder during winter, the next few months—assuming everyone is awake for it—are likely to see more cases and more deaths. 

“Deprived of host-to-host transmission, the virus would go extinct,” Andrew Noymer, associate professor of public health at the University of California, Irvine, said.

That’s not to say this modest proposal doesn’t have some very real issues. For one, the logistics of putting every single human on Earth into a state of torpor is, in a word, terrifying. But perhaps the largest barrier to this proposal is that, right now, it’s just not possible, according to the researchers who humored Motherboard for this article. Right now, it’s still in the realm of science fiction, and that’s not likely to change in the next few weeks. 

Nonetheless, lowering human metabolic rate is still of great interest to scientists—and various space agencies around the world like NASA. Last January, a group of researchers, some of whom took part in a NASA workshop about the topic in 2018, published a paper exploring some of the first steps in the field. 

According to the paper, things like moderate sedation and deepening slow-wave sleep, the state at which human bodies reach their lowest metabolic rate, could induce a shallow metabolic depression, reducing metabolic rates in humans by 20 percent or less. A deeper, more science-fiction-y kind of torpor could reach around 98 percent, said Matthew Regan, Comparative Biosciences Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and one of the authors of the study. 

Doctors occasionally, and temporarily slow down the metabolic activity of humans who have suffered a stroke or heart attack using a technique known as “therapeutic hypothermia,” and scientists are actively working on inducing torpor in mammals that don’t normally do so.

These shallower metabolic depressions can reduce the amount of oxygen humans require and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they expel in space flight. Different types of torpor have also been studied for use here on Earth for medical treatments. 

Deeper torpors—which, in the future, might be induced by chemical or technological means—could also reduce the amount of oxygen, food and water consumed by astronauts, reducing the weight of a spacecraft. According to Regan, animals in deeper states of torpor are also resistant to radiation, which is one of the biggest hurdles humans need to overcome on deeper flights into space. Finally, and perhaps most famously, it could be used to put astronauts under during long-distance space flights, keeping them healthy and sane in the void. 

There is some reason to think that hibernation could be possible in humans, according to those who have studied the issue: “Hibernation and torpor, processes that occur naturally in many mammals, might offer better alternatives to achieve the aim of long-term preservation of patients and astronauts that currently only exists in science fiction,” a 2018 paper in Bioscience Horizons posited. “The fact that most hibernation genes are also present in the human genome may allow us to explore ways to induce hibernation/torpor using current molecular technologies such as the CRISPR-Cas system in the future.”

Some of these applications could also be quite useful to humans on Earth, especially during a pandemic, said C. Loren Buck, a biological scientist at Northern Arizona University, and one of the co-authors of the paper that came out of the NASA workshop. Buck was even considering writing a separate paper about how advances in metabolic depression could improve life during pandemics, but hasn't had a chance to do it. 

Buck suggestedd that if a human with COVID-19 were put into a state of torpor, it might stop the disease from replicating in their body, as some viruses hijack biological processes in human bodies to spread. Other viruses, like herpes, stay dormant in the body, however. Buck, who notes that he's neither an epidemiologist nor a respiratory expert, said that COVID-19 reduces the functioning of peoples’ lungs, and thus the amount of oxygen in their blood. So lowering the need for air in the body through lowering a patients’ metabolic rate could help them, though, he says, COVID-19 is a complex disease that can affect many different parts of the body. 

“We get so many good ideas from science fiction,” he said.

According to Regan, going into torpor would also help people make it through what has been a psychologically stressful time. 

“Even with the internet and sourdough bread, people get bored of being indoors,” he said.

It’s still early days in the field—torpor certainly isn’t a tool that humans will be using in spaceflight any time soon, or during pandemics maybe ever. But there has been some progress in inducing torpor states in rats, another species that doesn’t do it naturally. According to Regan, getting to a place where science can induce a deep torpor in humans will take quite a lot of work. 

The area of research needs funding, and it will require a better understanding of the process as it occurs in natural hibernators like bears, ground squirrels and lemurs. It will also require the development of new drugs to safely mimic this process, and an understanding of human physiology and its limitations. 

“I'm being really optimistic when I say I hope to see this in my lifetime,” Regan said, adding that a proper isolation would likely stop or greatly reduce the impact of the pandemic.

“I'm not sure metabolic depression is, itself, necessary to reduce the spread of COVID.” 

Further, according to Noymer, plans like this often have unforeseen consequences in science fiction. Just as a hypothetical, if everyone was put under, humanity would functionally lose the chance to develop immunity to the disease. And, even if the disease was wiped out in most of the world, some laboratories may still have samples. 

“Humans are very good at overlooking unforeseen effects, unintended consequences,” in these kinds of science-fiction scenarios, he said.

Similarly, while waking up at the end of this winter to see the pandemic end may seem attractive, it would be a huge bummer to find out that it was, in fact, still going on in the spring, Veitch said. At that point, people would need to start over in their processes of coming to terms with it, she said. 

Also, the idea of putting billions of people to bed simultaneously raises some ethical issues, Buck said—though, as a slightly more reasonable suggestion, he said that people could hypothetically also just go under in shifts. It’s hard enough to convince people to wear masks or stay in isolation—or even that the disease exists in some cases. So trying to convince everyone to pass out for months on end isn’t the most likely thing on the planet. 

“Are people gonna let their government put them under?” Buck asked, rhetorically.