A Word In Edgewise: Doing What Comes Naturally

Photo courtesy of BigStock/mr.Smith
Photo courtesy of BigStock/mr.Smith

While we continue to politicize, religicize, normalize into a soccer opponent, or deny their existence, viruses and concomitant diseases like Covid-19 continue doing what they’ve done for eons; what they are self-engineered to do. 

Implacably, they are seeking out and attaching themselves to a certain human cell protein, penetrating the cell membrane with special prongs, forcing the altered cells to reproduce the virus.

Should the virus encounter an impassible defense—a vaccinated individual—in an amazingly short time by human standards, it can undergo changes to ensure success at a future time. One reason we developed a working vaccine for Covid-19 so quickly is that scientists identified and have studied the coronaviruses since the mid-1960s. Current vaccines aren’t rabbits yanked out of hats. 

Human lifespan is finite, but an eternity compared to the myriad generations a virus strain can undergo in a twinkling. With no conscious agenda, no political affiliation, no religious dogma, they’re nano-honey badgers that “don’t care” what a human host thinks or believes. Blocked, they’ll reshuffle their genetic deck to create a new key to your cellular lock. 

Lacking complete reproductive equipment, the virus requires access to yours, using its outer spikes to unlock the targeted cell. The “spikes” in illustrations are actually slender flexible stalks, each sugar-coated to protect it from anticipated attacks by your hungry antibodies. 

Sai Li, a structural biologist in Beijing, used cryo-electron tomography imaging to reveal that the SARS-CoV-2 viruses’ spike proteins are cunningly engineered, swiveling on three hinges to search; when one locates a cell with the desired protein, a little “hook” at the stalk’s tip dissolves the sugar coating, then injects its own genes through the host cell’s breached membrane. Reprogrammed, the altered cell now churns out only virus clones. Dr. Li’s (colorized) illustrations (October 2020, NYT) suggest inner-space bonsai nano-gardens; aesthetics designed to force humanity into surrogate parenthood. 

I marvel at this courtly dance of non-life-seeking life for its replication. Will climate change declare a winner? Or merely two losers? And not merely two. Analogous to our biome of inner flora and fauna, humans harbor trillion-member viral congeries, our viome, some of whom—bacteriophages—are life-savers, devouring lethal infectious bacteria; still so little understood that the FDA only rarely sanctions their medical application. 

It’s very difficult, often impossible, to defeat an opponent on its home territory. We acknowledge this in sports, less often internationally. The anomaly here is that both we and the viruses consider this human, fleshly incarnation “Home.” 

Smallpox was eradicated because the variola virus, unlike Coronaviruses, had no animal reservoirs for backup. But fire needs fuel, and we can limit, if not eradicate, Covid-19 with handwashing, isolation—and vaccinations. Our current fractured strategies won’t bring the Covid-19 infections and deaths down to what some consider to be an acceptable annual flu death tally up to some 60,000 souls. 

We—viruses and people—are both fighting on home territory. How many deaths will we consider “acceptable” while we pray, deny, tout horse dewormer? Most concede that masks, isolation, and handwashing do reduce infection. Will we continue these practices, or go maskless into that good night? 

Consider, as 2021’s flu season approaches: last year, under masks, distancing and disinfecting, American flu deaths dropped from tens of thousands to 700. Seven hundred. Caused by different viruses, but both contagious respiratory diseases. Is there a lesson there? 

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