Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Why Is COVID-19 "Novel?"

Mankind is confronted with a blizzard of multidimensional news concerning COVID-19. Consequently, we will comment on a few elements of the “novel” coronavirus phenomenon, especially, why COVID-19 is a “novel” disease. Novel connotes new, never encountered before. A coronavirus is a concomitant of viruses in general. Coronaviruses consist of a family of viruses—a taxonomic group of viruses having a variable effect on our environment and on humans. The well known “family of coronaviruses” is a large group. Some members of the family coronavidae cause upper-respiratory illnesses. Many of these coronaviruses originated in animals—pigs, camels, bats, cats, and other animals. Sometimes they ‘jump’ to humans and are transmissible among humans, creating what is known as a ‘spillover’ event.

Hundreds of coronavirus species are known but not all coronaviruses are human pathogens. Some cause disease in humans. Coronaviruses with the exotic names 229E, NL63, OC43, and HKU1 cause common colds and various other respiratory ailments in humans. More famous recent coronaviruses are SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) which appeared on Earth in 2002 and disappeared by 2004. It infected 8437  and caused 813 deaths. In 2012 another coronavirus infection appeared known as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Virologists initially called the disease “2012 nCoV” meaning “novel coronavirus of 2012.” It resulted in roughly 2000 cases and caused about 600 deaths. It still rarely appears on Earth in some animals.

Now the world is confronted with the scourge of COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019. After it was originally identified in China in late 2019 scientists named it SARS-CoV2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus 2.) While the disease is currently informally referenced as the ‘coronavirus,’ the moniker COVID-19 was proposed by WHO (World Health Organization), an agency of the United Nations, and has caught on in the public mind. The novel COVID-19 disease has supplanted the former “novel coronavirus of 2012” by a wide margin, probably because it is more deadly and of far greater importance.

COVID-19 is a novel, never-seen-before viral disease. The disease is caused by a virus mutation-an alteration or change in the genetic sequence of DNA or RNA of a less virulent virus which was not especially harmful. COVID-19 has proven extremely contagious. For some infected people, most of its effects are not especially harmful. For others, the disease is extremely harmful or even fatal. In our previous post we explained that viruses occupy a unique position in the world of biology. They are not truly living entities, but they have genetic DNA and RNA sequences more typical of living things. A genetic sequence is a chemical code “instruction book” governing the production of physical characteristics and function of living things. Some viruses promote normal health. Such viruses are benign, but harmful viruses adversely affect human health. Sadly, the COVID-19 virus is a harmful mutation.

Pastors and theologians have offered many timely commentaries on the current role of God as He observes humanity in the physical world He created. In our 3-8-20 post we characterized our planet as “significantly…a microbe world.” Most microbes are harmless or even helpful. We wonder how God perceives the current virus pandemic phenomenon. What is the mind of God for 2020? These questions cannot be answered to the full satisfaction of humanity. The mysteries contemplated may have a parallel in the questions and answers posed by the righteous and blameless Job and by the Lord Himself in the Old Testament Book of Job. Note especially The Lord’s comments in Ch. 38-41 and Job’s humble reply in Ch. 42.

We invite you to study additional pandemic COVID-19 science and faith issues with us in upcoming posts.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Virus Profusion and COVID-19

Many lay Christians, pastors, teachers, and theologians have been focused on explaining the presence of the current COVID-19 pandemic in terms of God’s relationship with the human race. Pandemics, both virus and bacteria caused, have been a recurring concern. Natural disasters, horrors of war, and other sources of personal tragedy are also difficult to rationalize in terms of the benevolent Creator of All Things revealed in Holy Scripture.

Our science/faith blog during current events is somewhat more focused on scientific knowledge about infectious agents. God is the author of theological truth. Scientific and theological truth may be conflated in satisfying ways. During the High Middle Ages a phrase became popular among scholars: “Theology is the queen of the sciences.” Philosophers have addressed the meaning of this statement for centuries. We continue to discuss the overlap of science and Christian faith.      

Our previous post may have startled readers by stating the incredible myriad of virus particles (virions) which rain down each moment from the atmosphere and abound in virtually every environment inhabited by humans. Non-living virus particles far outnumber living bacterial organisms. Prevalence of benign, or even beneficial microorganisms outnumbers harmful microorganisms significantly. The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has assumed a prominent role in our human experience. Discovering scientific truth and dealing with the presence of the current pandemic is linked to our Christian worldview.

Statistics of viruses, virus particles, and viral infections in our environment can be overwhelming. The majority of human pathogens are virus-caused. At the same time some viruses are capable of helping our bodies fight off invading bacterial microbes. These interactions are complex and understandable by those trained in bio-medicine. The prevalence of viruses by the numbers is overwhelming. Trillions is not an easily grasped mathematical concept. When trillions of viral particles rain down on us from outer space or can be found in our water and soil, we are overwhelmed.

As we write this post, we are reminded of the dual nature of viruses. Our society could be negatively impacted if we fail to find a medical or natural solution for abating and defeating the current COVID-19 phenomenon. It is one of over 200 virus species causing infections in only 23 virus families. Different sources report varying statistics. Novel viruses develop by mutation each year. Many human pathogens are viruses. A minority of human pathogens are bacteria.

Most bacteria are not harmful. This situation is more complex for viruses, because they must always invade living cells to reproduce. They functionally thrive within host cells when the virus particles become integrated with host cells, but they are unable to capture or store free energy. They are far smaller than bacteria. Viruses occupy a unique position in the world of biology. They possess some features of living things but they are not considered to be living micro-organisms. However, they have a genome of either DNA or RNA, are able to code for several proteins, and are able to adapt to changing environments. At best, these nonliving infectious entities can be said to lead a sort of ‘borrowed life.’ Viruses coexist with life wherever it exists.

We repeat the staggering truth concerning the ubiquity of microorganisms. One liter of seawater contains 10 billion bacteria and 100 billion virus particles. Such microbes are on us, within us, and around us. BMC (BioMedical Central), reported (2017), “The number of viruses and bacteria on earth is staggering and they occupy essentially every environment…..The vast majority of microbes are harmless and many play essential roles in plant, animal, and human health.” 

In Nature Reviews Microbiology, an article entitled “Microbiology by Numbers,” (2011) the authors state, “In total, there are approximately 1400 human pathogens (including viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and helminths), and although this may seem like a large number, human pathogens account for much less than 1% of the total number of microbial species on the planet…..Estimates for the total number of microbial species vary wildly, from as low as 120,000 to tens of millions and higher.”

Viruses and bacteria have the physical appearance of being designed organisms. Even the simplest cyanobacterial cells which comprised the first elemental life on Earth were morphologically simple but biochemically complex—an indicator of an intelligent Creator who initiated the design process. Virus particles are simpler than bacterial cells but also possess exquisitely designed structure. Another term used by microbiologists is virome—the collection of all the bewildering number of viral species surrounding us.

Viruses and viral pandemics are part of the ‘created order.’ Likewise, bacteria and other pathogens are part of that order. We must understand that humanity has not been placed in a ‘perfect world.’ The perfect world is being prepared for those redeemed by Jesus Christ (John 14:1-3). It is partially defined by accounts of the New Creation described in the Book of Revelation, Chapters 21-22. Until we experience the New Creation in our eternal home we must be content to exist in the good and very good creation of the here and now. There are episodes of natural evil with which we must periodically cope.

In recorded human history there have been numerous pandemics and multiple natural tragedies. In a previous post entitled “Universal Perfection” (9-22-17) we also discussed periodic episodes of natural evil:

We humbly pray for the safety and health of all people negatively impacted by this dreadful COVID-19 pandemic.







Sunday, March 8, 2020

Beneficial and Worrisome Infectious Agents

What’s new at the start of the 21st century’s third decade? The coronavirus COVID-19 has thrown the world into a state of fear. There may be some justification for this fear, primarily based on our lack of knowledge. On the contrary, there may not be justification for the degree of current fear based our enhanced acquisition of medical knowledge. COVID-19 is the third well-known coronavirus human infection since 2000 to generate substantial dread among the world’s population. The previous coronavirus infections were dubbed SARS and MERS. SARS has apparently disappeared from the planet. MERS is still present in some animals. 

Behavior of viruses and the symptoms they cause is diverse. The coronavirus family has resulted in “common colds” for many years, but the new coronavirus infections such as COVID-19 have more severe consequences. This virus family can originate in animals and jump to humans, possibly mutating and becoming more serious. Such viruses are known as zoonotic viruses. Zoonotic infections may also be bacterial, fungal, or parasitic. Zoonotic infections have increased from 61% to 75% in the most recent decade. It has been established that COVID-19 originated in a live animal/fish market in Wuhan, China.

Infectious disease may be caused either by viruses or bacteria. Well known viral diseases are flu, smallpox, chickenpox, measles, mumps, hepatitis, herpes, polio, rabies, zika, and ebola. Examples of bacterial diseases are plague, tuberculosis, syphilis, anthrax, cholera, pneumonia, and ear infections.

Most bacteria and viruses do not produce harmful infections—a fact which should reassure us. There have been 5000 viruses described, but there are millions of different types. Viruses have emerged as the most abundant biological entity on our planet. There are 30,000 named species of bacteria, but millions more exist. Only a small part of the total diversity of viruses and bacteria have been studied and described in detail.

Many bacteria are helpful in human digestion, produce a robust immune system, and work for the health of human skin. Bacterial microbes are highly diverse. With respect to viruses, we may be aware of ‘viral therapies’ to treat forms of cancer. Bacteriophages are large viruses that kill bacteria. Sometimes called simply “phages,” they are ubiquitous viruses that are sometimes useful in overcoming harmful bacterial infections. Research in this field is ongoing.

Speaking of viral and bacterial ubiquity, we may be startled that each cubic centimeter (ml) of sea water ordinarily contains several million viral particles. We also may be startled that trillions of viral particles, called virions, rain down on us each day from the sky. An incredible statistic has been reported: Scientists have found hundreds of millions of viruses in a square meter and tens of millions of bacteria.

It appears, therefore, that we could characterize our planet significantly as a microbe world. Viruses and bacteria are present virtually everywhere and have been present since life on Earth originated. An unfamiliar term applies—the microbiome—the entire habitat, including diverse microorganisms, their genomes, and the surrounding environmental conditions. (Compare the familiar term ‘biome.’) These concepts may be better comprehended during our current coronavirus fear obsession. Fear is a powerful emotion related to a lack of faith that our God, the Creator of All Things, is in control of our world.