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.
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.
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.
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.