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JOHN HUMPHRYS: An asteroid could be heading for Earth and yet our leaders are at war with each other

Every leader of every country in the world had come together on a virtual network. Never had there been such a conference. 

But never had there been such a crisis. The very existence of our fragile planet was threatened by a massive asteroid bearing down on us at phenomenal speed. 
Back in April 2020, the world had watched with mild interest as a large lump of rock dubbed as ‘potentially hazardous’ had zipped across our night skies — close enough to be noted but not close enough to be a serious threat. 
This was different. This was much, much bigger and every reputable space scientist agreed that the impact would be devastating. The destruction followed by a nuclear winter would make our precious planet uninhabitable for decades. Perhaps for ever.
There was just one hope. It might be possible to divert the asteroid if every country co-operated in a programme that had been launched by NASA back in 2021. 
It would, of course, mean sharing technology and resources on an unprecedented scale. And that, of course, was to prove its downfall. Which is why, as I write, that tiny bright dot in the night sky is becoming ever larger and the planet is facing the end of civilisation as we know it ... Right. 
That’s the beginning (and end) of my career as a science fiction writer. Ray Bradbury’s reputation is safe. But not all of it is fiction. NASA really is planning to launch its DART mission next year to try to nudge an asteroid off course. 
And my assumption that not even global catastrophe would persuade our most powerful leaders to share secrets with the ‘enemy’ may not, sadly, be entirely fanciful. 
Earlier this week Britain and the U.S. issued a joint warning that ‘rival states’ including China, Russia and Iran are mounting cyber-attacks on research institutions linked to the coronavirus response in an attempt to steal secrets, including work on a vaccine. 
Britain’s own National Cyber Security Centre claimed the organisations being targeted ‘include healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organisations and local government’.
This is deeply depressing on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. But perhaps I overstate the danger. Don’t we already have the virus on the run? After all, most countries are seeing the number of deaths gradually falling. 
In this country the speculation that half a million might die has been shown to be as ridiculous as the behaviour of the professor who raised it. Perhaps he was a little distracted at the time.
The fact that our death rate is apparently the highest in Europe is at least partly down to the cackhanded way the Government has handled everything from testing, to PPE, to its wicked disregard for care homes and its muddled message about herd immunity followed by total lockdown. 
Even so, we may be seeing the beginning of the end. Maybe. But let’s remember how Churchill concluded that famous speech. The victory at El Alamein was in truth ‘the end of the beginning’. 
The fear in the battle against coronavirus is that it may not even be that. We need to go back further than 1942 to the aftermath of the Great War. The first wave of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 killed many thousands worldwide. The second wave was infinitely worse. 
The virus had mutated within months to a far more deadly form. No one knows for sure how many died. Many governments falsified the figures because they feared the effect on the morale of those who survived.
But subsequent calculations suggest it was anything from 17million to 50million or even twice that many. We cannot know whether there will be a second coronavirus wave. And we cannot rest easy until we find a copper-bottomed cure or a vaccine. 
Which takes me back to my bit of whimsy at the start of this column and the spectacle of nations competing instead of cooperating. How different things might be if the world’s leaders — political, industrial, financial — were to get together and pool their resources. 
There are at least 100 separate initiatives under way worldwide to find and manufacture a coronavirus vaccine. The U.S. is undertaking its own taxpayer-funded project called Operation Warp Speed. 
China is working on its own state-­sponsored vaccine project. The World Health Organisation has already had to strengthen its cyber defences after coming under sustained hacking attempts. 
It’s not only in the search for a vaccine that countries are competing with each other. The European Union wants to restore free movement between members but says they’re being undermined because some countries are trying to make their own exclusive arrangements.
Even within the United Kingdom there is tension. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of undermining London’s attempts to get a united front on lockdown restrictions by playing political games for her own advantage. 
Wales, too, wants to set its own timetable. Nations are putting their own citizens first just when we should be working on a global response. 
Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire, is a rare figure taking a world view. He put some money into China to help with early response before investing in Europe and the U.S. He says he doesn’t care where the vaccine comes from so long as it comes. By contrast, the two most powerful world leaders view Covid-19 in the light of their own destinies. 
President Donald Trump found a skilful way of deflecting attention from the awkward virus statistics in America by taking aim at China. No President ever lost votes in the American heartland by being seen to stand up to the nation’s enemies — especially if they’re a bunch of Commies. 
He desperately needs those votes if he’s to stay in the White House. President Xi can’t lose his job — he is president of China for life — but he wants to be seen as the most powerful leader in the world. And as they flex their political muscles, the virus sweeps across the planet, indifferent to borders or to political ambition.
Now that Theresa May is herself no longer in the front line of politics she is able to deliver a warning to those who are. She wrote this week that a polarised politics has taken hold. 
It views the world through a prism of winners and losers and sees compromise and co-operation as signs of weakness. Gone is the idea that countries do better by working together to solve common problems, even if doing so sometimes means an apparent sacrifice of short-term benefit for the greater good. 
In its place is a cynical calculus: ‘I’m right and you’re either with me or against me.’ This is the world that the pandemic hit. She’s right. But it does not have to be like this. We faced catastrophe in 2008. 
True, it was economic catastrophe but we know only too well that when economies crash people suffer terribly. Gordon Brown stepped up to help avert a global financial crisis. He is calling again for a combined international campaign on coronavirus. In the darkest moment of our history, we did what was necessary. 
You need only gaze at the many pictures in this newspaper to see what can happen when the world pulls together in the face of an existential threat. They remind us of something we must never forget. 
That magnificent day 75 years ago when the allies defeated the greatest enemy this nation had ever faced. We did it because we were united. The two great leaders of the free world shared victory with the leader of a Communist regime who despised everything we stood for. 
Stalin took Russia into the war against Hitler because he had no choice. We have no choice in the battle against coronavirus. It has to be defeated. Let’s hope our leaders can unite in this battle.

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