We are facing a new reality but it is also an old problem. Humans have been engaged in a battle with microbial organisms. Life is a constant engagement with other organisms struggling to survive. At its heart, this is evolution by natural selection.
As a species, our battle with microbial species really took off when we shifted from hunter gatherers to agriculturalists. With settling down and breeding animals, we entered into a much closer relationship with our stock. Often, animals would be allowed to roam through the house. Certainly farmers had to take on many tasks for animals that they would have never considered prior to the development of husbandry. I mean, who would consider shoveling manure for wild species?
With the development of agriculture came settlements which, in turn, resulted in many more social interactions with a larger group of people. This was both a good and bad thing from the perspective of engaging with micro-organisms. The good was a bigger gene pool resulting in a greater diversity of genetics associated with the immune system. The bad was the potential for one person to infect many. And, of course, large settlements attracted vermin along with the domesticated animals. But animals also carry disease.
Our development of civilization was and remains a two-edged sword.
We now have a world-wide civilization. It takes very little time to travel halfway around the world. Indeed, with some careful planning and lucky connections, it is quite possible to go all the way around the world in 48 hours – a feat not even conceivable for much of our history and dependent on modern transportation.
We now have the capacity to move faster than disease has a chance to manifest. And this, to a large extent, is what is driving the present pandemic. People who feel and appear perfectly healthy are unknowingly spreading the virus far and wide.
Why is this coronavirus so much worse than a typical flu?
The answer has to do with RNA – ribonucleic acid. It has to do with genetics, both ours and the virus itself.
Flu is an all-too-human virus. It is well adapted to human biochemistry as it has been surviving within our populations for centuries. And generally speaking we are well adapted to it. The DNA/RNA chains making up the virus along with the proteins they express are recognized by the human immune system. This means you have inherited some level of defense within your own genome and your body has some level of immunity acquired through prior exposure or by vaccination.
Novel viruses – such as COVID-19 – are not human viruses.
They arise from animals. The World Health Organization spends a great deal of time and energy monitoring novel viruses in animals and watching for mutations. The viruses are usually transferred only from animal to animal. For example, H1N1 was originally a virus only affecting pigs while the Spanish flu was found in birds.
But every once in a while, one of these animal viruses mutates and is able to jump species. And sometimes the jump is from the original host to us. This is when it becomes a real problem. Why? Because we have no natural defense mechanism in place. Our immune system doesn’t know how to deal with the invader. Our biochemical defenses are not primed to fight it off.
As long as the transmission remains animal to human, it is a problem – particularly for anyone infected – but it doesn’t have the potential to become a pandemic. But at some point the virus might develop the capacity to transfer from human-to-human. Once that happens, we are in the contagion phase and things can quickly escalate out of control.
Critical is both the lethality of the virus and the number of other individuals it can infect. Too lethal and a virus burns itself out quickly. Too small of an infection rate and it becomes a localized illness.
Fast forward to today.
COVID-19 existed in animals for no one knows how long. However, one day, in an animal food market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, the virus mutated and managed the transmission from animals to humans. And with two weeks, it mutated again allowing it to jump from human to human. Scientists call this slippery.
COVID-19 took off like a rocket. It is not a human virus. It is nothing our immune system or our medical establishment recognized. Further, the virus changed itself in such a way so as to cause great damage to human lungs, enhancing its transmission from person-to-person. It is very slippery.
It has already mutated again as there are now two strains – “s” and “l” – which makes it twice as hard to fight and to find a vaccine.
The only tool we really have in our medical shed is to not give the virus any chance of jumping from person-to-person. Self-isolation may not be fun but until we find other solutions, it is our only choice.
Either that or going back to be simple hunter gatherers.