Fighting a sneaky enemy
The last couple of months Victoria has been under a partial lock down due to Coronavirus. This has had an unprecedented impact in our daily life, routine, priorities, and of course businesses. This sudden crisis has helped us seeing how important tourism is for economy. Maybe some of our businesses will be affected by these measurements, and that can be a bit hard to handle. Additionally, every day we receive information from various sources about this virus. They are so many, and very often very contradictory. We wanted to share with you a biology perspective about the invisible agent that is threatening our economy and even worse, our lives. Without an informed opinion about what a virus is, and its biology, we would tend to feel prisoners in our houses, because we go outside and we see no problem, so why should we stay inside? We would feel that it is unfair that the businesses in Victoria can not operate normally. In summary, our partial quarantine is a lot more stressful if we do not understand why we need to stop everything we have been doing so far and just stay at home, doing nothing, just waiting, not knowing what is going on or what is going to happen. That is why it is interesting to address some questions from the perspective of the virus.
What is a virus?
Biology is the study of life. The official definition of life is: “ The condition that distinguishes organisms from inorganic objects and dead organisms, being manifested by growth through metabolism, reproduction, and the power of adaptation to environment through changes originating internally”. It turns out that a virus is a very special exception of this rule. A virus is a sequence of genetic material (DNA or RNA) encapsulated inside proteins. Normally, it requires to invade a host cell, and trick the cell to use its machinery to create many copies of itself, in other words, reproduce. Because it can not reproduce by itself and it does not have its own mechanism, technically it is not alive. However, it mutates, evolves and adapts to the environments. So, what do we do with it? It is still a puzzle. And, because viruses are such a strange form of organism, they have properties that we do not understand. For example, they can remain inactive for a long time and then activate when they reach a host cell. They are super small, so they can travel on air. But because they can only reproduce within a host cell, they are incredibly eager to “conquer a body”. That is what we always need to remember about them. They have their strategies to do that, because they have to ensure their “survival” or maybe more appropriately “existence”.
Around 10 or 15 years ago, Biologists were really excited about the development of molecular techniques that allowed us to sequence more or less anything. We thought we were on top of the world. Because if you understand the code of the genetic material, you can basically distinguish every species in the world, label it, and understand it. But that was too perfect to be truth. We found out that the thing is a bit messier than that: In summary, sequencing everything is too expensive, time consuming, and it is messy to interpret. It is a lot easier to target one specific gene that is very informative and focus our attention on it. With coronavirus, both strategies are used: Some samples all around the globe are fully sequenced to reconstruct how the virus is evolving and its changes every time it reaches a new country. The second strategy, targeting only one gene, is used for the molecular test for diagnose someone as positive for COVID-19. That is what people call PCR. They take a sample from you and search for a specific piece of RNA that would only be there if you have the virus. But as I mention, this process is not super easy to do. That is why the amount of test can be limited, and we can not scan the whole population to be sure who has the virus and who does not.
Where did it come from?
With the molecular tools that I mentioned, it is possible to identify the parts of the virus. Parts such as: the region that codifies for how deadly it can be, the region that dictates how to manipulate the machinery of the cells, and a very important one, how it attaches to the host cells. A while ago there was a rumour that the virus had been created in a lab. That is NOT true. Scientist have just recently published a very sophisticated and cool piece of research to test this. This is a summary of what they did: Based on the genetic code of many viruses similar to COVID-19 that infect humans and animals, they build a model on how the different viruses can join to the cells. Interestingly they noticed that COVID19 has information to join to the cells very easily, so even when the virus is not super deadly, its success it to jump from one human to another in very crowded environments. Curiously, this is the same strategy used by viruses infecting chicken in henhouses (because they are also crowded). But they also found that the way in which the virus joins to human cells is not optimal. The virus was originally in another animal (bats or pangolins, we still do not know) so it had evolved to join to their cells. Then, it got the chance to pass to humans, and even though it does not join to our cells optimally, it can still jump easily between us. So, that is why we need social distancing protocols.
Is it true that it is mutating?
Yes, it is true. Viruses have a small chain of genetic information. It would be impossible that it does not mutate after all this time spreading all around the world. But this does not mean that it would become more deadly. That, we do not know. But if we let it spread, we give it more chance to accumulate mutations and that is a fairly random process which could lead to anything. Another reason for social distancing.
Well there are people that have the virus but never develop symptoms. Probably they have something in their immune system that can neutralize the virus. It would be cool to study their immune system to know what the reason for this is. Actually, that is part of the research that is being conducted by some hospitals in partnership with the University of Melbourne. This could give insights on what is the next step to develop a vaccine. However, in the meantime, since there is no way to know for sure if we have the virus, we have two possibilities: 1. Our immune system is not strong enough and we are in danger. This danger can range from a nasty flu to a period in intensive care, or even death. No one wants that. 2. Our immune system is super strong and we never even notice that we have the virus, but we become carriers, with all the potential to infect our loved ones. And our loved ones could be sensitive to the virus. That is not a good outcome either. I guess that is why, as much as we can, we need to stay at home to protect ourselves and others.
I guess biology was never so popular. But I wish it had become this relevant under better circumstances. I suppose there are many people that have never heard about epidemiologists. But they are people that combine the biology of infecting agents (virus, bacteria and parasites) with the behaviour of people (the hosts) to predict how the cases will increase or decrease under different scenarios. They are also real heroes, as well as the statisticians and mathematicians that they recruit in their teams to apply maths to save lives, and take decisions. These people are vital for the government to decide what to do. Everyone should get extremely angry if someone says that a model is “made up numbers”. In order to build one of these models, years and years of experience are needed, not only to understand the equations, but to decide on the variables to include and to very responsibly, and transparently communicate their results to the people. The problem is, as I mentioned before: how to estimate how many cases and serious cases we will have, if we do not know how many people are infected? Since the test is only done in patients with symptoms, we have no idea how many more cases can be out there. So we need a model to show many potential scenarios with different measurements or various levels of restriction: such as social distancing, quarantine, etc… Additionally, there is another thing we need to consider. Since the spread of the virus has been described as an exponential growth, we can not be just ok with reading the number of cases to this day, we also need to consider: under the current measurements, how many cases are expected for the near future? But since we can not predict the future, we need to trust our team of big heroes to give us their numbers. This is a time when the core sciences like, chemistry, mathematics and biology are joining in the first line of the battle field to decide what to do with this virus. But to be honest, everyone is doing their part: Engineers building medical equipment, medical care givers trying to keep the situation under control, and farmers to still provide the food for the people. And we should also do our part: What is normally called “flatten the curve” just means not becoming part of those numbers that would alter and distort the equations, making all the decision making process, difficult and risky.
The call from poor countries
This is just a personal opinion: Maybe the biology of the virus does not know anything about race, ethnicity, borders or nationality, but economy does. This virus indirectly affects our economy in so many ways. And due to the way our structures work, the poorest people and the poorest countries would get more affected by the economic crisis. Interestingly, I read that for countries with strong economies, protecting people lives and keeping the economy running, are hard to achieve under these conditions, but still possible at the same time. For the poor countries, achieving these two things has actually become a paradox. I just hope that this situation helps us realizing that poor countries and poor people need help, and there must be a way to do that, because lives are more valuable than anything. Paraphrasing the words of Carl Sagan, one of the most famous scientists, physicist, astronomist and pioneer in science communication: “humans are just dust from the stars, universe is so immense that makes us realize how small and insignificant we can be. Yes, we are small, but we do not think small” And it applies now, because as species, I am sure we can all together come up with a unified strategy to defeat this new challenge in our history. Now we know a lot more than before. It is time to give science the chance to speak, and it is time to create something new and improved.
Thanks for reading
Anders et al. 2020 The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2
Remuzzi & Remuzzi 2020 COVID-19 and Italy: what next?
Chikina & Pedgen 2020 A call for honesty in pandemic modelling https://medium.com/@wpegden/a-call-to-honesty-in-pandemic-modeling-5c156686a64b
Rothan & Birareddy 2020 The epidemiology and pathogenesis of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak
Anderson et al. 2020 How will country-based mitigation measures influence the course of the COVID-19 epidemic?
Who am I?
Obviously a very difficult question. Instead, I can tell you my academic background. I have completed my undergrad program in Biology in Colombia. Then I finished a master in Biological sciences in Colombia as well. Currently I am a candidate to obtain a doctoral degree in Science from the University of Melbourne, a stepping stone to become a professional scientist and researcher.