Mulhall column: Our tiny Godzilla
“History shows again and again
How nature points out the folly of men…”
~Blue Oyster Cult
What’s known about COVID-19 falls into three distinct categories: what’s generally accepted, what’s roundly rejected, and what’s uncontested.
In the generally accepted ledger, you have a limited number of items that serve a narrative. Here you will find that COVID-19 originated in a non-human mammalian species like a civet, a pangolin or, most commonly, a bat, and that this virus made the leap to humans in a Wuhan, China, open-air food market. You will also find social distancing, mask wearing and, of course, vaccination. This list defers to the recommendations of the CDC, NHS, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci.
The roundly rejected ledger is somewhat longer. The first item is “hydroxychloroquine” writ large, followed by any statement traceable to President Donald Trump and numerous other Republican politicians. Here you will also find every suggestion that the virus came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a facility reputedly equipped with the most effective biocontainment precautions known to man.
The uncontested ledger is easily the largest of the three. Here you find what we know about viruses, like that a virion (the infective form of a virus) contains a nucleic acid, either DNA or RNA but not both, and a coat of fat and/or protein molecules that encases the nucleic acid.
Also, in the uncontested ledger is information on how to perform “gain-of-function” research, which oversimply is adding a capability to a virus “to study how it works.”
That’s the kind of clarification you make when some far darker purpose isn’t hard to imagine, as anyone who has ever played with a magnifying glass under the noon-day sun understands.
The attraction of the different ledgers is obvious, I think. The generally accepted and roundly rejected ledgers stem from politics. Neither makes for particularly constructive contemplation.
That leaves the uncontested ledger, and while its scientific subject matter can be delightful by comparison, it quickly leads into tall grass. If you’re like me, virology and molecular biology are a heavy lift — even Googling, reading and note taking leaves me light years away from understanding the nuances of COVID-19.
Yet, knowing I won’t understand COVID-19 the way a molecular or evolutionary biologist might keeps me humble and fosters open-mindedness, which is invaluable in approaching a daunting subject like COVID-19.
What’s also helpful, at least for me, is to re-visit Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.
Thomas had a way of looking at Earth — and our humanity within — as a single cell. His perspective was neither wholly scientific nor intentionally poetic, and he struck me as disinterested in traditional ideas like stewardship. To Thomas, the Earth he thought of as a cell played hardball, and the stakes were high.
In Lives of a Cell, Thomas wrote: “The viruses, instead of being single-minded agents of disease and death, now begin to look more like mobile genes. Evolution is still an infinitely long and tedious biologic game, with only the winners staying at the table, but the rules are beginning to look more flexible. We live in a dancing matrix of viruses; they dart, rather like bees, from organism to organism, from plant to insect to mammal to me and back again, and into the sea, tugging along pieces of this genome, strings of genes from that, transplanting grafts of DNA, passing around heredity as though at a great party. They may be a mechanism for keeping new, mutant kinds of DNA [or RNA] in the widest circulation among us. If this is true, the odd virus disease, on which we must focus so much of our attention in medicine, may be looked on as an accident, something dropped.”
Thomas passed away in 1993, so it’s fair to say he never contemplated COVID-19 or its origin. To Thomas, nature needed no help. Any human interference in virus transmission would have been beneath contempt.
Had Thomas lived to witness COVID-19, I wonder what his take-away might have been.
It’s purely speculative of me, of course, but maybe Thomas would have looked at something simple like the virus’ unrivaled ability to transmit indoors, usually through prolonged exposure to air circulated through human lungs and sinuses, and wondered why, after leaping in an outdoor food market from a deceased outdoor mammal to a human, COVID-19 suddenly lost its ability to transmit outdoors.
If COVID-19 never relearns outdoor transmission, perhaps this viral pandemic would have struck Thomas more like a tiny Godzilla than of something dropped.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at PostIndependent.com.
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