Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Incredible Virus World

Viruses have dominated our attention since early 2020. Virus microbes have been an ever-present accompaniment of human experience before we knew that viruses existed as a physical entity and before they were perceived through any sort of visual device. Scientists became aware of viruses as a mysterious unexplained cause of infections within the last two centuries. In our lifetimes, when we were ill we blamed “a virus.” That was often true but it did not explain very much. Since the early 1930s, we were able to see viruses through an electron microscope.

We cite coronaviruses as an example. Coronaviruses have been known as the cause of common colds and various other respiratory ailments in humans. A more serious novel coronavirus has suddenly appeared on our scene with serious health threats to senior citizens. The COVID-19 virus is not nearly as harmful to younger people.

Vincent Racaniello is known as “Earth’s virology professor,” teaching in the Department of Microbiology at Columbia University. He is a talented, well-known educator and researcher in the field of virology. This year he initiated Virology 2020 lectures at Columbia which are freely available on YouTube. Each lecture runs more than one hour and is powerfully instructive. It would be desirable for all politicians and government authorities to be instructed in the world of viruses. Professor Racaniello states in his first lecture that he loves viruses and has a passion for them. His overpowering respect for viruses is understandable as we become better informed. 

Racaniello claims if we want to understand life, human health, and human disease, we need to know more about viruses. Here are several quotes from his initial 2020 lecture: “We live and prosper in a literal cloud of viruses. Viruses infect every living thing on the planet. Nothing escapes a virus infection. We regularly eat and breathe in billions of virus particles on a daily basis and viral genomes are part of our genomes as well. They are truly pervasive. They are everywhere.”

“Having a virus” has often been synonymous with feeling ill. With the prevalence of thousands of different viruses present all around us, we may wonder why we do not more often feel ill. Ecologically, viruses play many more beneficial than harmful roles. If we ingest them, most pass harmlessly through us. Many are “dead end” viruses. MERS and SARS coronaviruses are examples. The COVID-19 pandemic is unusual in its  virulence and level of contagion. We pray that COVID-19 would be similarly a “dead end” virus and that a medical treatment would be quickly discovered.

Recent discoveries involve virus “spillover” events, relatively rare events in which viruses are transmitted from animals to humans. Even more rare is the subsequent viral transmission from human to human. The recent novel coronavirus pandemic is such an example. In our modern world where human population has exploded to over 7.5 billion in a relatively short time frame, many modern phenomena such as overcrowding, unique problems in food processing, and burgeoning worldwide travel, coping with viruses has become more difficult.

Instead of wondering why God permits the existence of microbial diseases in our time or speculating whether our Creator is specifically messaging the human race, humanity should focus on the the role man has played in enabling widespread disease spread through foolish management of our environment. Man, created in God’s image, has possessed the ability to implement prudent environmental and ecological principles from the beginning (Genesis 1:28). God has sent this message to humanity since he was created. The messaging has been continuous.

A separate question is why there exists a relationship between viral and bacterial microbes on this planet, or why they even exist at all. Most simply, it is a part of the created order since life appeared on Earth. Generally, we acknowledge that the planetary operating system works exceedingly well if managed according to Godly principles. Man sometimes disrupts the ideal working system.

Only 1.5% of the human genome codes for proteins, the physical building material of life. Until recently evolutionary scientists pronounced most of the remaining DNA to be “junk.” Why would God permit useless DNA to be present in the genome? they asked. Their explanation was the “junk” was merely an evolutionary leftover. In the last several decades we have discovered majestic usefulness for most of the so-called “junk” DNA. The Creator knew what He was doing! Likewise, the relationship between viruses and bacteria has a purpose. Most viruses and most bacteria serve a useful purpose. For this, we are thankful. 




Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Case for Microbe Parasites

Lately anyone who makes a positive case for viruses may be looked upon with suspicion. In the case of one specific coronavirus, COVID-19, that view is understandable. The novel disease is devastating and unpredictable. All viruses are considered ‘obligate’ parasites, growing only in association with their hosts, completely dependent on invading the living cells of their hosts.

We recall two virus-related events with more positive effects than the recent COVID-19 phenomenon. When I first entered the teaching profession, a veteran public-spirited teacher in my building initiated several campaigns. One of her memorable projects was a crusade against the invasive gypsy moth scourge. These pests had been accidentally introduced to New England from Europe in 1868. Eventually they became rampant all over the Eastern US. Government agencies still attempt to control the widespread gypsy moth infestation in the US. A virus known as NPV was one natural control agent introduced into defoliated forests. This virus controls harmful insect infestations. My colleague studied the gypsy moth life cycle and contributed her knowledge and energy to a ‘natural’ virus control campaign in our Northern New Jersey neighborhood in the 1960s.

Observing the action championed by my teaching colleague was a personally impactful introduction to the intricacies of ecology. What does ‘native’ mean with respect to our iconic eastern oak species, the preferred nutrition of the gypsy moth? And how did the ‘invasive’ gypsy moth insect species become suddenly destructive in America, but not nearly so destructive in their original European habitat?  

Another memory in personal family lore is the hike my daughter and I shared on the Mount Tammany Trail in the heart of the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in the summer of 1989. One of the periodic gypsy moth outbreaks occurred then. The moth infestation was distressing, even on the scenic trail up Mt. Tammany. But the view from the top looking down on the famous Delaware Water Gap was unforgettable. Memories of my colleague several decades before and the hazards of exotic and invasive species are still poignant.

One control for gypsy moths, specifically, is a naturally occurring virus called NPV (nucleopolyhedrovirus). NPV virus substances can be industrially produced as a bio-pesticide to help control insect scourges. There are other natural controls acting against nuisance organisms including bacterial and fungal remedies.

Parasitic viruses to control other harmful organisms? Yes, many viruses are beneficial. Harmful planetary life forms would be uncontrollable without an abundance of different viruses. For example, without viruses called bacteriophages, many harmful bacteria would multiply and occupy every conceivable niche on Earth. We challenge readers to research the benefits of viruses. The same may be said for bacteria, most of which are benign or helpful. We live in a fascinating world of legions of microbes. 

Without atmospheric viruses and bacterial fragments, no raindrops or snowflakes would have a nucleus around which to form. Viral and bacterial fragments are carbonaceous and ultimately become recycled material for bottom dwelling sea life. Over eons this material is returned to the atmosphere in the form of needed nutrients to maintain the life sustaining carbon cycle. Readers may want to review our post on the carbon cycle:

Viruses and bacteria both contribute in various ways to a robust and healthy planetary home for humanity. These contributions are both historic and current. Historically, ancient bacteria are the origin of many of today’s plethora of mineral resources. Viruses and bacteria have sometimes acquired a negative reputation. In God’s created order, we must search deeply to discover multidimensional truth. Each exists for a purpose in our created world—God’s purpose.     

With a nod to the purpose for bacteria, readers may wish to review another past post:

Dr. Hugh Ross, president of Reasons to Believe has written voluminously on the wonders of God’s created world. We close with two passages from his blog post of 3-30-20, Viruses and God’s Good Designs:”

“Life forms on Earth larger and more complex than microbes would be impossible without an abundance of viruses. Without viruses, bacteria would multiply, and, within a relatively short time period, occupy every nook and cranny on Earth’ surface. The planet would become a giant, bacterial slime ball. Those sextillions of bacteria would consume all the resources essential for life and die.

“Viruses keep Earth’s bacterial population in check. They break up and kill bacteria at the just-right rates and in the just-right locations so as to maintain a population and diversity of bacteria that is optimal for both the bacteria and for all the other life forms. It is important to note that all multicellular life depends on bacteria being present at the optimal population level and optimal diversity. We wouldn’t be here without viruses!”

Friday, May 8, 2020


Health officials are confident the COVID-19 pandemic will soon be controlled. Given the modern array of effective weapons and practices for the control of infectious agents, the likelihood exists that the coronavirus threat will diminish as have other serious viral outbreaks of the recent and distant past. It is unlikely that the worldwide death toll from this plague will come even close to the human toll of other notable pandemics in the last 2000 years. However, in terms of the ravaged worldwide economy, it is doubtful any past pandemic comes remotely close. Our dense urban population centers, interconnected economies, technologically advanced civilizations, and opportunities for rapid worldwide travel makes us more vulnerable to pandemics, notwithstanding startling medical advances of the past one or two centuries.  

The unpredictable coronavirus continually instructs medical scientists about the degree of contagion of this novel pathogen. We are discovering whether or not it is capable of reinfecting the same victim, the possibility it may return in waves before an effective vaccine is developed, and how the impact of asymptomatic infections causes unanticipated problems in medical responses. Because the virus mutates into various strains as it infects its victims, our medical responses may be “learn as you go’ rather than solidly predictable. Our society prefers instant answers. Government authorities are vulnerable to an impatient public as they respond. 

COVID-19 has already mutated into several dozen strains. Currently, optimistic medical scientists speculate that some mutations may produce less harmful symptoms, but there is always a chance that the newer mutations could result in more serious outcomes. Past coronavirus diseases such as SARS quickly diminished in their virulence. We pray that the current mutations would also have less harmful results.

Immunization technology has been a divine gift for the past 200 years, especially in the last century. The prime hope for current containment is development of a vaccine. World residents must not become overly confident in a single preventative measure. Quarantine and distancing measures have become effective in the recent pandemic. In many areas the world must become more vigilant. 

In crowded urban population centers, future municipal and architectural planning could encourage healthier air circulation, improved plumbing, and more spacious transportation systems. Practices related to food supply animal markets and meat supply preparation sources should be approached with the welfare of both animals and human consumers to avoid continued animal to human crossovers—called “spillover” events. In the US alone domestic and foreign airlines transported an unprecedented one billion passengers in 2019. Such measures must become reality, not merely an ideal. We are experiencing the consequences of a sevenfold human population explosion in the last two centuries. Many dangers have developed in our population-exploded society which have exacerbated the possibility of pandemics resulting from an infection. The human population explosion has been matched by explosions of medical and health knowledge, advances in human nutrition, and multifaceted innovations in technological innovations. 

Since the time of Christ there have been horrific recurring pandemics. World populations have fluctuated as these events have impacted humanity. In the past 2000 years, diseases have harvested the lives of up to 500 million people. The incredible 1918-19 Spanish flu tragedy was responsible for 10% of that number. More recently HIV-AIDS was responsible for 25-35 million deaths since 1981. Our search of human history reveals plagues and pandemics have harvested between one and 200 million souls occurring on an average of once per century in the past two millennia. Causes ranged from bacterial Plague (Black Death) to viral diseases such as smallpox and influenza. For perspective on these tragedies, world population at the time of Christ was only 170 to 330 million.

Many Christian commentators have wondered, as did Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly in his Daily Citizen Morning Headlines, “Why doesn’t God end the coronavirus plague?” Many have offered rational responses from a scriptural perspective. We stress that theologians have posed the same question concerning the numerous horrific pandemics of the last 2000 years. Ultimately, God’s ways are not man’s ways. Jim Daly continued, “Let’s continue praying for those who grieve and those who are in the thick of this ongoing battle to defeat COVID-19. I believe God is up to something well beyond our sight or understanding.” 

We ponder the ultimate impact of COVID-19. At this writing, 267,233 souls have perished from the virus. We thank God that medical professionals have been gifted with knowledge and skill in our day to limit the worldwide death toll.