October 26, 2020

Why humans are easy prey for pandemics | Babelia

“There is a war,” read a song by the great Leonard Cohen. A total war, which also occurred between those who affirmed their imminent reality and those who denied it.

During the first months of 2020, most of the world aligned itself with those who claimed that the war was taking place in distant China, from which came images of empty cities and corpses wrapped in plastic that barely moved us: “Others died”, reflects a character from Borges, “but that happened in the past, which is the season (nobody ignores it) most conducive to death”. Well, the rulers of the entire West seemed convinced that death would hang around the remote province of Wuhan.

Even when the invisible hand of fear wrote our destiny on the wall, we continued to pretend that our particular Macondo was not on the Grim Reaper’s maps. The plague was coming to Italy, overwhelming our neighbors like a locomotive and in Spain we wanted to have “only a few cases, all imported, all under control.”

And then, suddenly, our leaders changed sides, going from pacifists who wanted nothing to know about the enemy invading us to generals willing to mobilize all their troops, starting with a first line of fire of medical personnel who have been fighting heroically the pandemic from the beginning, risking – and losing in many occasions – the life in it.

After months of confinement, the first battle was won. At the end of June the prevalence of the virus was very low, infections had dropped to less than a hundred a day (according to debatable official figures) and the number of deaths was counted on the fingers of the hands. But anyone with a modicum of intelligence could understand that victory —which cost around 45,000 deaths— was by no means final.

In the fourteenth century the bubonic plague swept across Europe, wiping out a third of the population and taking the old medieval order away. Everything has happened before, and most importantly, it will happen again

And then, without further ado, our rulers mutated with the ease and speed with which an RNA virus does. The state of exception became a “New Normal”, with no restrictions on public and private meetings and without an efficient case tracking system, one of the essential keys to fighting a pandemic. It seemed that the rulers had decided that the virus could disappear by decree. And of course, many citizens, fed up with so many months of kidnapping, uninformed and unaware – in the midst of the overabundance of information that also includes an ever-growing repertoire of exaggerations and falsehoods – of the mechanisms of spread of the new coronavirus, also gave, by the end of the battle.

But the war has only just begun. We complete this book at the beginning of August, when the pandemic already exceeds 20 million infections in the world and a second wave of the virus begins to rebound in Spain and other countries. The future is uncertain (perhaps the future is always uncertain, but we only realize it in times of pandemic). We all wait for the vaccine like heavenly mana, but no one knows exactly when it will arrive. The day there are enough to vaccinate essentially the entire world’s population, this war will have been won.

Or perhaps we should say this skirmish, since, in the context of the contest between viruses and other forms of life, the current global pandemic is nothing more than an insignificant episode. This war has been raging for over a billion years and continues to cause real holocausts to this day (for example, in the oceans, where the corpses of bacteria and archaea killed by viruses contribute significantly to emissions. total carbon). Compared to the fight between bacteriophages and bacteria or archaea, the fights between viruses and the rest of living beings are almost friendly.

In every fight it is necessary to know the enemy. When the enemy is a virus, “knowing” takes on a deep hue. Viruses are not defeated with bullets and cannons, but with antivirals and vaccines. Our weapons, in this contest, are those provided by science, and science is based, first of all, on observing and understanding.

Viruses are one of the living beings – or almost alive, the discussion in this regard is not trivial and we will address it in these pages – the oldest and simplest in the history of the planet, little more than a bit of genetic code wrapped in a protein capsule, although that simplicity is deceptive, like everything that concerns them. In fact, they are amazing nano-robots, endowed with powerful evolutionary strategies to infect their hosts and multiply at their expense.

In the first part of this book we will take care to better understand these prodigious nanobots. We will see how they work, what are the mechanisms used to infect us and how our formidable defenses deal with them. We will also see that their strategies are very different. Some viruses, like TTV, coexist with us without harming us and, in fact, we all carry in our genome traces of ancient invaders that stayed there. Others, like Ebola, launch a suicide attack, which, if successful, literally destroys its victim in a matter of days. There are killer viruses, squatters, hackers and mutants, viruses whose effect does not go beyond a few sneezes or a pimple in the nose and others capable of liquefying our internal organs. There are even schizophrenic viruses, which coexist with us peacefully for decades and suddenly cause us fatal cancer. Viruses are parasites of all animals and plants, of bacteria and archaea, and even other viruses. Dangerous as they can be, they never cease to amaze us.

The second part of this book narrates – following a historical perspective that starts millennia ago – some of the crucial episodes in the war against viruses, which, incidentally, cannot be separated from the battles fought against bacteria and other pathogens, not only because the latter are sometimes as dangerous as the nanobots that star in our history, but because, as we will see when we talk about bacteriophages, strange alliances can occur between deadly enemies such as viruses and humans when facing a third, bacteria.

Why humans are easy prey to pandemics

Historical perspective is essential. SARS-CoV-2 is the first news that many people, particularly the youngest, have of a dangerous virus. In Western countries, viruses – or bacteria – were considered other people’s problems until six months ago. And yet the Spanish flu killed 50 million people just a hundred years ago, and diseases like polio, smallpox or tuberculosis have taken countless lives – the numbers are in the hundreds of millions – in the last two centuries. Compared to some of these weapons of mass destruction, COVID-19, for all its severity, is still a middleweight. Knowing where we come from – understanding the suffering that viruses and bacteria have inflicted on the generations that preceded us – is important to better understand the times in which we have lived.

We dedicate the third part of this book to SARS-CoV-2. It is a sophisticated creature, with an imposing repertoire of tricks, which has allowed it – aided by our lack of foresight, arrogance and lack of solidarity – to spread throughout the planet. As we have all learned the hard way, the only efficient way to combat it is to develop efficient drugs – vaccines and antivirals. The effort to develop a vaccine against the virus, as well as to improve diagnostic systems, is one of the most impressive scientific feats in history, which we will relate in some detail.

The pandemic has not infected everyone, but we are all sick of uncertainty. There is a poem by Francisco Brines that accurately captures these sentiments.

Summers were long and hot!

We were naked by the sea

and the sea even more naked. With the eyes,

and in agile bodies, we did

the happiest possession in the world.


Today it seems a deception that we were happy

in the undeserved way of the gods.

It seems a deception that only a few months ago we could walk hand in hand, kiss the friend you meet on the street, squeeze each other at the bar or the football stadium. It seems a hoax that we were doing well and falling asleep at night.

But all this has happened before. In the fourteenth century the bubonic plague swept across Europe, wiping out a third of the population and taking away the old medieval order and possibly faith in an almighty and benign God. Everything has happened before, and most importantly, it will happen again.

The temptation to forget what we are learning by fire and blood is great. The risk of reacting to catastrophe by rejecting globalization and hiding your head under the wing is enormous. After all, Macondo was so small that he didn’t figure on death maps. So why not go back to the village, close the borders and trust a government Big Brother to protect us? All those dystopian scenarios, as well as terrible, are useless. The next virus will jump back from a bat, pig, rat, or any other animal to humans, or it will be released by bioterrorists. It may be the product of sophisticated genetic manipulation, but the old smallpox virus would suffice to cause a catastrophe of immeasurable dimensions. The scenarios are numerous and some very terrifying, but if one thing is certain it is that the next pandemic is inevitable and, possibly, imminent.

What to do then?

This book is written by a biologist and a physicist. The authors met more than thirty years ago when they coincided in their postdoctoral stay at Stanford University, in the United States. Throughout these three decades we have maintained personal friendship and interest in each other’s work, but only now have we begun to collaborate, and not only in this book, but in the development of sensors and prevention systems against SARS- CoV-2. Our case is common. Across the globe, scientists from very different specialties – doctors, biologists, physicists, chemists, computer scientists, nanotechnologists, engineers – are working together, often putting their previous projects on hold, in the battle against the virus. This call to arms of world science fills us with hope. Also encouraging is the growing number of articles written by philosophers, economists, sociologists and many other intellectuals analyzing the social tools, no less necessary and important than the technological ones that we will need to combat this and the next pandemics.

Juan Boots He has a Ph.D. in Biology and is a professor at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Juan José Gómez Cadenas He is a doctor in Physics. He is currently a CSIC research professor and directs the Neutrino Physics group at the Institute of Corpuscular Physics.


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