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Coronavirus, Nemesis Of Age Of Reason

It’s only a Virus. But it’s the Pandemic Virus! Who was responsible? Superstition, blind faith, witches brew and conspiracies are back in the ‘Age of Reason’ and science. Anthropocentric (human centric) confidence is meeting its nemesis. People forget, nature can’t be ruled.

Nature is full of viruses. There are some millions of strains and scientists cannot quite agree on a classification. What’s more, viruses are constantly mutating without the help of scientists in white coats. Nature is their driver, scientist and spy in chief.

A virus is essentially a RNA or a DNA with a bit of coating in many. It has confounded the scientific world for classification as it is neither a non-living entity nor quite a living entity. It does not replicate by finding a partner and produce baby viruses to be nurtured by mummy virus.

RNA and DNA are templates from a sort of Unicode. They are gene codes of all of life, be it microbes (bacteria etc), insects, mammals human beings, plants, fungus etc. Each species has its own code and within species there are small variations, such as hair colour, height, facial features, gender, functional ability (some become Ussain Bolts, others are best suited to watch TV) and so on. Of course environment also plays a part but the framework is all due to these guys, called RNA and DNA. And they make adjustments over years, thus giving rise to evolutionary changes.

A virus is essentially a RNA or a DNA with a bit of coating

RNA and DNA are made of small molecules called nucleotides. For those with a bit of chemistry background, both have guanine, adenine and cytosine. But DNA also has thymine while just to be different, RNA has uracil instead. They occur in different combinations thus giving each RNA and DNA a different character for the species. They have one further difference. RNA is usually a single string and DNA is two strings, the famous double helix structure. It gets more complex after that and we are not giving away free PhD courses here.

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One other character difference between the two for interest is that DNA is more stable while RNA is quite unstable. RNA tends to change more frequently, hence some viruses like coronaviruses mutate constantly.

RNA and DNA are the reason life continues to replicate. These guys don’t want nirvana. Over millions of years they have formed complex ways for perpetuity. Some formed bacteria and continue like that, Others have become elephants etc. Many have become plants and others have formed the human race for survival. When we say life goes on, in fact it is the gene, the RNA and DNA that goes on. While we make elaborate theories about soul and afterlife, these guys, RNA, DNA just want to jump into the next generation and survive. They are not interested in God.

Some of these guys didn’t bother to become exotic. They have remained in their most basic form as RNA or DNA and found convenient way to near eternity. They survive with a little protective protein coat and become parasites to replicate. We call them viruses!

Viruses are very, very, very small. They are about 10000 times smaller than a grain of salt.  They are also nimble. The coronavirus has some 29,903 nucleotides. The smallest human chromosome is 50 million nucleotides with a total of 3,200,000,000 nucleotides in a human DNA. With 3.2 billion relatives in tow, no wonder the human DNA has to make us go through those complex rituals of finding a partner, marriage ceremony and home making to get itself to the next generation. Believe it, it is not your parents who push you into a marriage, it is the human gene trying to remain on this earth through another generation.

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The nimble virus on the other hand doesn’t have to go through these rituals. But it has no life until it joins a living thing. It just hangs around or degenerates. It survives by finding something living, sneaks into its cells by crafty methods and then replicates! It is the ultimate real life zombie film.

There are viruses everywhere. Millions and trillions of them. Only around 5000 have been studied. They are in every organism.

So what about coronavirus. This virus has another capsule, as do many virus strains. There is a halo appearance to this capsule with small mushroom type bits on it. Hence it is called corona. Corona is a gaseous halo around a planet. There are quite a few types of coronavirus strains. SARS-CoV-2 is a new mutation causing the disease Covid-19.

This nasty virus usually attacks lower parts of the lungs rather than throat that other influenza viruses do. It attaches to the membrane of host cells. Poor suckers (host cells) get romantic with it and open up. In goes the Viral RNA. It twinkles its eyes (metaphorically) at everyone and finds its way into the host nucleus and DNA. There it becomes deceitful, raids the DNA, uses it and replicates like no tomorrow. Many more Coronavirus formations take form. They push out of the host cell membrane onto others. Some get sneezed out. If the host cells had a vocabulary, deceitful is the mildest word they would use as they are ripped apart.

An effigy of Covid19 at Moghalpura X road in Hyderbad

Then the collateral damage starts. The cells that die form mucous. When cells die, it leads to temperature as the body deals with toxins. The mucous accumulates. The cells that are meant to push the mucous upwards into the mouth for us to spit (bad habit) or swallow, are dying and unable to do so. When there is quite a bit of mucous, the Oxygen from the air cannot get in properly while Carbon-di-Oxide from blood cannot get out. No amount of ginger or haldi can help at this stage. The whole body starts becoming toxic. Ventilators are used to try and push in high concentration Oxygen in the hope that it will give time to the body to build antibodies to destroy the virus.

The human immune system is a remarkable defence army. There is no dithering politician to control its timing. Normally the human body has had numerous mild infections since birth. The immune system immediately does what scientists are trying to do except it works faster. It looks at hostile cells, studies it (yes believe it or not) and then builds counter cells, enzymes etc to destroy the hostile invader. This has nothing to do with witches brew.

Once the immune system has dealt with an invasion, it memorises it. Next time it is even quicker off the mark. But sometimes the invasion is overwhelming, especially in older people where the immune system is also in retirement mode, or in people with illnesses such as diabetes where it has other distractions and is also slightly compromised. In these cases the virus gets an advantage and may decapacitate the body’s response. The person dies from lack of Oxygen reaching vital organs.

The Covid-19 virus is called a novel virus, meaning a new mutation. That’s why people do not have pre-existing immunity. The body is building immunity on the go.

Viruses change some of their RNA nucleotide sequences in a number of clever ways when they realise hosts have effective defences. The host has to start building immunity all over again.

They can get together with another virus of near similar strain within a host and create a different RNA nucleotide structure without affecting core one. This is called ‘recombination’. For instance there may be a strain from animal A, i.e. a bat, that gets into animal B, i.e. a pig. The pig may have some similar strains to human viruses.  A new recombinant virus strain appears called novel virus. This newly mutated virus jumps into the human and we get a pandemic if the virus is dangerous.

Though widely believed, there is no evidence that the virus came from bat soup

Bats and viruses like each other and have the ultimate deal. A lot of their viruses spread to humans. ‘Kill all the bats, build a beautiful bat wall! Detain them and deport them to Mars,’ you may be tempted to say if you think like an American president. Its not that simple. Without bats, we may be short of food as they eat insects, pollinate plants and disperse seeds. The ecosystem is very complicated.

There are a few other ways viruses change, one is called antigenic drift when the protein cover of virus changes by mutational ability of virus code over time. There is another called Antigenic shift when two or more viral strains work together to change their protein cover thus fooling the host immune system. Very clever these viruses. Cleverer than most politicians. Virology is complicated.

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One does not need a Chinese scientist stealing information from USA laboratories and accidentally spilling it in Wuhan wild animal market as some Americans want the world to think. Viruses have been doing this for millions of years and are quite deft at it. No wonder pandemics keep on recurring. Besides when laboratories fool around with viruses they also ensure there are antibody serums or vaccines. Nothing seems to have sprung up during the coronavirus pandemic.

It needs to be said that there are good viruses as well. Viruses favourite victims are bacteria. There are trillions of bacteria. There would be many more if viruses were not invading them and killing them. We have viruses in our guts, respiratory system (lungs) and reproductive tracts killing the bad bacteria. These are called bacteriophages. We will be suffering from toxic shocks if these viruses left in disgust.

In Russia and some Eastern European countries, viruses are used as phages to deal with antibiotic resistant bacteria. The science is too young and expensive in the rest of the west yet but not in Russia. Don’t ask me why. Big Pharma etc?

Phage science is now looking at using viruses to kill cancer cells in the body. This is an interesting and exciting development. Since viruses can be specific, they are being developed in laboratories to target cancer cells. The science is in its infancy and still looking at how the body immune system can permit this exception.

Phages clean our sewers of bacteria, sterilise a lot of our plant food supply and help some plants withstand hard weathers.

Sadly there is no cure for the bad viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) when they are on the prowl. We can’t wage a war on viruses or send them packing. There are nearly a billion viruses in a square meter of earth surface! And they also literally fall from the sky as they exist in the outer stratosphere of earth too. We have to hide from a pandemic virus or build immunity.

Basically run away from the virus and wash your hands. Soap destroys the outer membrane of coronavirus thus rendering it impotent immediately.

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The second is to find a vaccine that will help to build immunity against the next wave.  A naturally robust immune system can help many as it has during this crises.

Corona Virus has shown the world how weak the human race is. In the age of science and reason, human beings had started to believe that the human race is in control of everything. It is this false arrogance, a belief in infallibility of human reason, that has made people forget that human society only knows a miniscule amount about nature. That is why people want to believe that only a human conspiracy can create a virus this potent! Quite simply, it is nature working hand in glove with a tiny virus to outwit our immune systems, our vaccine programmes and most importantly our silly boisterous political leaders.

Best strategy now is, be a coward, be smart and hide from the virus until its numbers go down substantially. Don’t stare it in the eye. Wait for a scientist, not a holyman or a politician, find a vaccine. Even then, there is no guarantee as these guys mutate. Forget the conspiracy theories, these viruses have been at this game for millions of years even before the human race came on the scene. 300 millions years apparently.

From Brexit Britain To Bogroll Britain, Lessons For India

India is lagging behind other countries in the spread of the corona pandemic. The virus first crawls in the population, then suddenly moves at supersonic speed. The delay gives India time to learn from other countries and prepare well when the tsunami hits. Perhaps it can learn most from the previous colonial master Britain, which has gone from one leap into the unknown, Brexit, to another, Coronaworld, with little foresight let alone planning.

Britain is nervous. The British are worried about the way the Government is managing this. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has contracted Coronavirus himself and at least five senior doctors at the front line have died from it. Deaths are mounting. Vital medical supplies, masks and ventilators have still to arrive.  Meanwhile the British public seemed obsessed with bogrolls (toilet paper) when asked to stay at home. India has the time now to avoid all this mayhem.

Britain had a two month start but did little. China kept the world informed of the progress, the dangers and the epidemic nature of this Covid-19. It locked down an entire region, tested people in hundreds of thousands and built emergency hospitals within a week. Although China had initially kept a lid on this viral disease in December, it realised early on that this was an epidemic. It raised the alarm, got international institutions involved, shared biological and other epidemiological information by mid-January. On 30th January WHO declared Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

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China declared quarantine on 23rd January. Britain and USA had the time since then to plan their response. The leaders dismissed it with a cavalier attitude. Whereas China had to start from scratch, the rest of the world had the opportunity to learn from China’s mistakes and experience to set up tests, hospitals ventilators, supply chains for food and lockdown or quarantine procedures.

But both Britain and USA have chosen ‘showmen’ for leaders. Neither Boris nor Trump are leaders who inspire confidence in normal times let alone in a crises. The majority of their populations do not trust a word they say yet voted them in. Populism and a Twitter-limit attitude to political leadership, has now landed the British and American people in a position closer to underdeveloped countries, despite the fact both countries had the money, the skills, the resources to plan for this inevitable calamitous disease.

In contrast, the ever serious Germans, started developing tests for coronavirus in early January and had 4m kits by end of February. Germany started manufacturing and buying new ventilators by late January. German doctors had decided as late as December that this epidemic was going to become a world pandemic, based on previous pandemics. Its administration got into gear even before the disease arrived in numbers in Europe.

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In Britain, the section of the population, the elderly, that most rooted for Brexit, are the ones who are likely to be sacrificed by the leaders they voted in as the country struggles to cope with the potential cases. There is a de facto policy that people over 70 and especially 80, are unlikely to be given the full treatment chance with ventilators. There simply aren’t enough to go around as the Government dithered with a boisterous faith in ‘cant touch us’ approach until the devil landed on the door step. Playing gung ho politics with an unseen virus that knows no immigration rules or State boundaries, or border walls is another first for the British and American leaders.

The population saw the leaders were not up to it. It sensed lockdowns. To cope with the fear it went panic buying or as psychologists will not doubt say ‘retail therapy in crises’, to cope with the uncertainty. If the Government could not plan, at least Joe/Jane Public could ‘plan’ his /her supply chain by buying tens of toilet rolls. Britain went from Brexit Britain to Bogroll Britain. What else could joe/jane public do?

Both Britain and America have fumbled. If Brexit had already changed the world’s opinions about bumbling Britain in the Brexit harikiri venture, Britain’s response to this pandemic has confirmed their perspectives about the British State as an incompetent modern phenomenon.

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India can learn a lot from China’s experience and most of western world’s shambolic response. Prime Minister Modi has quickly put the country into a lockdown mode when a few hundred cases surfaced in India. He now has three weeks to plan a strategy that can minimise the infection rate and death toll when the Corona wave rises in India.

The way the Modi lockdown was instituted does not inspire confidence. It is reminiscent of the note bandhi days when the poorest were thrown to the wolves without planning the consequences of a sudden withdrawal of some currency. The daily wage earner, the biggest sector of the employed, suffered the most as their meagre money was no longer able to buy the daily food. Queues and chaos ensued. It could have been foreseen.

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The lockdown was done in the same way. It should have been possible for any ‘responsible babu’ to have predicted that people will rush to their villages for shelter and food. After all, the Indian ‘babu’ should know the nature of Indian people. The close proximity in buses and other transport has surely not helped. The consequences will become obvious in about three weeks.

Nor did the Prime Minister assure people that a plan was in place to get food to people locked in their houses as shops were also closed. Distributing food seems to have been started as an afterthought in response to the growing unrest that was resulting from mothers of hungry babies and children.

Nevertheless, it was wise to lockdown early rather than late as has happened in Britain and UK. This gives time for the administration to increase production of masks, testing kits, ventilators, emergency facilities and financial support.

There are still two weeks to plan this. The Indian administration, often ridiculed even by Indians, in fact is a genius in planning when forced to. The managements at Khumb mela is a showpiece of Indian management. Two weeks are no challenge to the administration. In fact it is more than enough time for an administration that can outdo the best of world’s management skills. It can also rope in the Army.

The Indian Army with its massive manpower is always deployed in natural disasters. It is a workforce that has always been relied upon during times such as this. It has the ability to build field hospitals, set up testing stations and ensure law and order. Working closely with civil authorities, it can reduce the impact of coronavirus financially and in human toll.

Given the disorganised and often rebellious nature of Indians to administrative authority, and their laid back approach to reporting, the real figures of people infected and deaths due to coronavirus will never be known in India. But with draconian powers and surveillance facilities that the current Government has acquired, it should not be far off the mark, were it to be honest with the statistics.

The administration needs to be applauded for its quick action. It can show countries like America and Britain that democracies can also manage a viral pandemic as efficiently as an authoritarian State such as China. Germany has shown that too. Germans have a reputation for forward planning and taking government as a serious institution unlike much of the rest of west whose populations seem to be focused on celebrity politicians. However Germany is a small country. India has a 15 times larger population.

The coronavirus is India’s test. It is helped partly by the hot weather on the horizon. But a systematic exit from lockdown with test centres, selective isolations, adequate food and other supplies, masks, emergency hospitals and Personal Protection Kits for medical staff will see it triumph and keep the death toll to less than thousand rather than near million mark. For once we can applaud the administration and the Prime Minister to have acted early and decisively.