A three-part series exploring science, existential dread and loud people who clearly did not try hard enough in high school.
Part One: Viruses
In which the author uses rigorous scientific techniques to answer questions such as: What is a virus? and Is this story going to spoil my lunch?
Viruses Killed the Radio Star
The chance of you bumping into a virus today is pretty good. That’s because there are a lot of viruses out there. Way more than you think. More. Morrrrrrrre…
OK, forget it, I’ll just tell you: our wee blue planet has an estimated quadrillion quadrillion (that’s 10 with 31 zeros after it) individual viruses drifting about the air, bobbing in seawater, lurking in the front lawn. Fun fact: there are 100 million times more viruses on Earth than stars in the entire universe.
So, a lot of viruses and just the one of you.
Not all viruses are out to get you in terrible, personal ways, although many are. Some kinds of viruses infect other animals. Some focus on plants and fungi. Some even target bacteria. Generally speaking, viruses are equal-opportunity pathogens, which refers to any organism that causes disease in its host.
But here’s an important, and frankly confusing, thing about viruses: They aren’t, strictly speaking, organisms in the sense that they aren’t, strictly speaking, alive. Viruses are little more than information in a protective shell. They’re like office photocopiers: they don’t do anything until you come along and press the START button, and then scream/cry/assume-the-fetal-position at the PC LOAD LETTER error message.
What I mean is, viruses can’t reproduce like other living things such as apples and Bengal tigers and the Kardashians. Viruses need to hijack the genetic code and machinery of host cells to make more of themselves.
This is where you come in. And, depending on the virus, where you go out. That is to say, pathogens use their living hosts like those cousins from Alberta who come for “a coupla days” visit that stretches into three weeks and sees all your beer and potato chips go the way of the dinosaurs.
Hijacking your genetic code and cellular machinery means your body is no longer able to do what it’s supposed to do, such as breathing and folding laundry. “You do you” is not on the agenda anymore. Now it’s “You do me,” and depending on exactly what the “me” part of the virus involves, your body might now have to contend with a wide range of illness, from genital warts to hemorrhagic fever. I swear I’m not making this up.
They’re totally into you
In order for viruses to do anything nasty and/or disgusting to you, they first have to get, uh, inside you. I’m trying to be delicate here, but look, sorry, we’re now talking about one or more of your holes. Viruses have to land in or near one of your natural head and torso holes, or a temporary hole like a scratch in the skin or, if you are American, gunshot wound in the skin.
Fortunately, I’m about to stop talking about your holes. Also fortunately, viruses cannot get into you through the new 5G cellular phone network, nor by saying “Bill Gates” three times in a row. He’s not Beetlejuice, who has better hair and clothing than the Microsoft guy.
Let’s assume that a single virus gets into one of your holes, say, because you believe having to wear a mask in the grocery store challenges your fundamental right to be an idiot.
Maybe it travelled over in a sneeze droplet, or you inadvertently scratched an eye or gunshot wound.
The point is, if your body has never met the virus before, there’s very little to stop it setting up shop and making more of itself, which you then spread to everyone you know, and many people you don’t.
We could spend a lot of time on the specific details of the body’s complex immune system, but, frankly, this isn’t a virology textbook, and also, frankly, I don’t know the specific details.
What I do know is if you and your immune system survive the virus, you live to fight another day with added protection: experience. Your body and holes will be ready to fight the next time that particular virus comes along.
More viruses than you can shake a stick at
Currently, we know about 219 virus species that are able to infect humans. The first one we discovered was the yellow fever virus, in 1901. The yellow fever virus is transmitted to people mainly through the bite of infected mosquitoes, which is a serious threat if you are one of the 600 million people who live in wet, warm, mosquitoey places in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. If it’s not lions or crocodiles or blood diamond merchants, it’s mosquitoes. Actual, true fact: Mosquitoes kill more people every year than sharks and grizzly bears combined.
The good news is we have had a safe and effective vaccine for the yellow fever virus for more than 80 years. The bad news is, even so, there are still about 200,000 unpleasant cases of yellow fever disease, and 30,000 nasty deaths every single year. Most of these happen to children and old people in poor countries who don’t have access to the vaccine.
Every year, we discover three to four new species of virus happy to kill (e.g. Ebola), grievously harm (e.g. dengue) or humiliate (e.g. poopy-pants) humans.
I should say, these viruses are new to us, because they have been around, lurking in deep jungles and dark caves and so on, since Adam was a lad. We’ll talk later about whether or not there is an evil global cabal, possibly run by Tom Cruise, manufacturing dangerous viruses in a dark laboratory above a pizza shop in either Wuhan, China or Langley, U.S.A.
What we can safely talk about now, because it is demonstrably true, is this: a big source of these new viruses is other animals. We’re all made of the same cosmic dust, so it’s no surprise that three out of every four new infectious diseases in people come from animals, and six out of every 10 known infectious diseases can be spread by animals.
Measles first came from cattle, influenza from water birds, Ebola from bats, and so on. What I’m saying is that you are right to give your cat the old stink eye when he sneezes in the same room.
Who’s who in the zoo?
You can catch one of these “zoonotic diseases” from direct contact with animal parts, such as teeth and claws, or more commonly, dog-poo bags.
You can also catch a zoonotic disease from indirect contact, for example if you wake up Saturday morning with your face in the dog’s water bowl, or tied up on the floor of the chicken coop after a successful chicken coup.
We already mentioned mosquitoes, but there are other vector-borne diseases that can be transmitted by ticks and fleas and other awful creatures that are probably creeping up behind you right now. Waterborne diseases come from being in contact with water contaminated with feces from an infected animal, and foodborne diseases come from… well, you get the picture. Isn’t nature fun?
It may seem to you that lately viruses have been in the news a lot. I’m not talking about COVID-19 in the past 20 months, I mean before that. Remember AIDS, SARS, MERS, H1N1, and whatever infected the Toronto Maple Leafs after 1967?
Viruses are in the news more often because more humans are coming into contact with more viruses. There’s a very simple explanation for this, and it doesn’t involve Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Deep State, whatever the hell that is supposed to mean.
Here is the simple reason: there are ever more people on the planet, who need more space, more food, and more delicious wet market pangolin for sexy-sexy fun time in order to continue making ever more people.
The only way for us to get more space, food and pangolin is to carve it out of the remaining jungles and forests and plains. Nature, as you probably know, is absolutely filthy, which is why it abhors a vacuum, and harbours all sorts of very nasty viruses for us to experience in frightening Michael Crichton-esque ways.
This problem isn’t going away. I, for one, am convinced that somebody should do something about it. But what? There are so many viruses, more every year, and the little buggers are everywhere. What is a technologically advanced, apex species to do?
Vaccines and why Bill Gates does not actually want to impregnate your arm with Windows 11.
Learn more about virus sizes and shapes: britannica.com/ science/virus/Size-and-shape
Read about cross-species virus transmission and the emergence of new epidemic diseases: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2546865/
How to keep safe from zoonotic disease: cdc.gov/ onehealth/basics/zoonotic- diseases.html