Dr Rajagopal Soondron
We do, now and then, have recourse to a “wake-up call” strategy to get up in time to attend to serious work. And our coronavirus friend is playing a similar trick on us humans by trying to arouse us from the chronic slumber we have fallen into for too long since the last century. In the 21st century to date we have come across SARS, H1N1 and MERS — all belonging to the corona group; but the latest COVID-19 is highly infectious, spreading into the community with ease and lethal to some 2% of those infected – mostly senior citizens.
The interesting thing about it is that all of the above should have induced in us similar fright of death, but we did not reckon with the effect of the present decade’s social media, which has triggered a mob psychology, inducing the mild panic that we are presently experiencing. Just to show how an excess of information may be detrimental to our faculty of discrimination. A proper scientific knowledge of what is actually going on would help us to gauge the real danger awaiting us; but we receive so much news from all corners of the world, many of which are fake manipulated posts, that we adults are as bamboozled as our youngsters who had done so badly in their last SC exams.
“Researchers are mapping the interaction between those millions of viruses on or in our body and our human cells – so as to learn more about the viral world we live in. Perhaps they are telling us that, if it comes to pass that one day humanity should disappear, maybe the viruses would still be here to restart the odyssey of biological evolution leading yet again to the emergence of another human race…”
As humans we are not afraid of dying – but we surely are of impending death. The ordinary annual flu kills more people than the present Covid-19 is expected to do; some 90,000 people die on the roads around the world every year; cancer and heart attack kill more people than what COVID-19 probably will, yet we are getting more worked up with the latest comer than the other more dangerous killers. Acute new events impinge on human psychology more dangerously than chronic ones, because in the latter case our psyche has time to adapt gradually. Because we are the cause of road accidents and we persist in not modifying our lifestyles for our cardiac welfare — we play the ostrich – so we feel less guilty. But nature’s Covid-19 is not our doing, so we react emotionally and differently.
Coronavirus being new we do not know how to deal with it; in fact, mumps virus is more of a killer, but the fact that we have a vaccine against it makes us feel safer, which is just an illusion. But such a vaccine does not exist for Covid-19 yet, which explains or anxiety. Senior citizens of 70 or so are more vulnerable to COVID-19, especially in presence of other diseases, for they have fragile immune and respiratory systems that are incapable of dealing with new viruses.
All of us are blaming the Chinese for this viral outbreak, but no one is talking about the global increase in temperature and weather change. Many more viruses are lying dormant somewhere in nature; they are waiting for the right conditions to burst out on the world stage. Mother Nature is keeping them at bay in quarantine! Sometimes we have set them free too early and we are also aware of their faculty to change their genetic code, rendering a vaccine only temporarily effective.
Now it is winter in the northern hemisphere, and summer in the south; maybe that’s why we are being spared. But in a few weeks when winter comes knocking at our door, we’ll wake up to the real impact of Covid-19.
Our health authorities are surely learning from the experiences of affected countries on how to deal with the outbreak when and if it reaches our shores. Basic precautions about barrier dressing and washing hands have been repeated ad nauseum and how we must isolate ourselves in case of an outbreak. Let’s hope our social media will come in handy when the time comes.
Yet another sphere for us. We, who used to believe only what is in our field of vision and keep on thinking that God exists only since the past 1500 to 5000 years, are being shaken at our very foundation with the threat of a potential viral pandemic.
So, what have we to do with viruses? The truth is that they were here on the blue planet long before us. Some scientists, believing in panspermia, subscribe to the view that life started here as a result of extra-terrestrial arrival of micro-organisms on comets from outer space. Could these have been viruses?
The latest New scientist edition mentions that every day some 800 million viruses impregnated in dust particles fall on each metre square of our planet. The total number of viruses present in our oceans, forests, soil and rivers may well be about 10 to the power of 31, and that would constitute our virosphere, which would outnumber the total number of stars in the universe by millions of times!
A virus is an inert package of genetic material floating in our atmosphere; it does not last long unless it finds the right temperature conditions which allow some to last for years. It acts like a parasite once inside a host – suddenly blossoming and colonizing another bigger virus called mega virus, or another animal or a human being. It could be harmful – as in Polio, Ebola or Smallpox; sometimes as a bacteriophage it helps us to get rid of harmful bacteria in our body.
Researchers have harnessed their genetic make-up to help us combat those harmful bacteria. Viruses replicate and spread throughout the cells of an organism, causing a rise in temperature. Hence the fever and muscular pain of influenza we know so well. Our body reacts by secreting all sorts of fluids, like when we have a runny nose, to get rid of them. Yet it could be a cunning trick mastered by the virus down the ages to pass from one host to another! So, stay away from such runny nose individuals…
So far, we have viewed a virus from our anthropomorphic point of view. But researchers are taking a different approach: they are telling us that if we want to understand our own evolution, we have to understand how the viruses changed during the billions of years on Planet Earth. Even in 2015 we thought there were only some 4500 types of viruses, but by 2019 that number had climbed up to 95,000.
There’s a host of scientists keeping constant watch on the viral world on our planet – studying their behaviour, their genomes, their constant transformation and behaviour, their potential for biological warfare. These scientists, known as viral ecologists, are of the view that the viruses constitute a reservoir of possible genes which get transmitted from organism to organism; this could have played a role in the emergence of new species or new mutated individuals.
The researchers are mapping the interaction between those millions of viruses on or in our body and our human cells – so as to learn more about the viral world we live in. Perhaps they are telling us that, if it comes to pass that one day humanity should disappear, maybe the viruses would still be here to restart the odyssey of biological evolution leading yet again to the emergence of another human race. Let’s hope and pray that the coming winter won’t bring a poisoned gift for us.
Meanwhile let’s celebrate our political freedom.
Happy Independence Day.
* Published in print edition on 12 March 2020