Tagged natural selection

“I, Corona”: My Exclusive Interview with the Little Guy Who’s Changing the World

Dear Students,

I have a special treat for you today, an exclusive interview with SARS-CoV-2, his first ever, on his life and times so far. I was able to arrange this through my special friend Charles Darwin, whom Sarsie—his preferred nickname—likes to call Uncle Charlie. Sarsie doesn’t think he’ll be confused with his older brother, SARS-CoV-1, whom he calls “pathetic,” nor does he think highly of his cousin MERS. “I mean, really, a few months in one or a few places, and then, poof! they’re pretty much gone.” He has a certain grudging admiration for cold viruses.

            But I’ll let him tell you in his own words. By the way, he insists on he/him/his, because as he puts it, “I don’t have the equipment to reproduce, so I gotta beg, borrow, or steal it from someone who does. I just put in my genes, and they do the rest. Also, let’s face it, a guy like me, who puts ambition above everything…I mean, I’m most likely gonna be male, right? Yep. My whole species, and my brothers and cousins too.”

            He asked me to call this column “I, Corona,” as an hommage to Isaac Asimov’s science fiction classic, I, Robot. “I didn’t like his three ethical laws, of course, but when he got to the part about robots that secretly run the world, I could definitely wrap my envelope around that. But why keep it a secret? Just take the world over and run it, I say.”

            What follows is a lightly edited version of our interview, with my questions removed. Not that there were many. He doesn’t let a human get a word in edgewise. So I listened and learned.

            “Yep. I’m on the move for sure. My bros and cousins were well meaning, all princes in their way—and we’ve got more princes than the Saudi Royal family—but I’m the Crown Prince (get it? Corona? Crown?) and I will be King.

            “By the way, this whole debate about am I alive? Am I alive? Are you kidding me? I’m alive and I’m eating you alive.

            “But back to the family. We’ve only been around a hundred thousand years, less than you even, but then again, we reproduce in 48 hours, you take 20 years. Do the math. Ex. Po. Nen. Shl. As Uncle Charlie would say, we can sure do some evolving.

            “The family divides up the spoils, but we’re not all equally successful. Some of the corona cousins specialized in farm critters. It’s a dirty job but somebody’s gotta do it. Let’s be honest, though, you’re not goin’ down in history for makin’ a chicken cough or givin’ a pig a belly ache. Then there’s the bunch I call the Corona Sniffles, they’ve done alright for themselves actually, they got around, they hang around, they evolve, they come back. No drama, mama, but Uncle Charlie would be proud.

            “SARS-1 did alright for himself but he just couldn’t get transmissable enough, and on top of that he only jumped from Jim to Jane, or from Zhang Wei to Mei Ling, after he gave Jim or Zhang symptoms. Jane and Mei knew to keep their distance. So my Sarsie-1 bro hit Guandong Province in China, got to Toronto somehow, and got locked in with quarantine. 8,000 cases, 800 deaths, a little economic slump, that was about it. One wave in 2003, so far done and done.

            “Cousin MERS was a killer though, too much for his own good. You kill a guy, he ain’t passin’ it on. Also Cousin MERS was never good at jumping from one of you sorry humans to the next. Probably more of you have gotten him from camels than each other. He broke out in Saudi in ’12, trickled around to 27 countries since, 2,500 cases, 800-some-odd deaths, well controlled by even your bumbling species, nothing to write home about.

            “You can see where I’m goin’ with this. I’ve done more in eight months than the rest of them put together. I’m the Crown Corona Prince by acclamation. I mean, let’s look at the facts. Okay, I was trapped in bats for I don’t know how long. I was bummed. Do you have any idea what a bat cave smells like? But I took a deep breath—the kind I make impossible for you—and channeled Uncle Charlie. He counseled patience: “Be like a Buddha Virus, bide your time, mutation and evolution will do the rest.

            “Boy, did they ever. You helped, by bulldozing forests and setting the bats I was riding free. My hosts got snared, sold, and eaten, and I was on my way. Okay: I’d evolved my way from bats to humans, but would I be like my cuz MERS, get stuck in a bat-to-human trap like he did (mostly) with his camel-to-human song-and-dance? No way. Or would I maybe take a leaf from my bro Sarsie-1’s book and only jump from Jim to Jane when Jim was already sick and Jane could avoid him like, well, the plague? Nope again.

            “I did everything by Uncle Charlie’s playbook, evolve, wait, mutate, evolve. Jump from bats to you folks (Whoopie!): Check. Jump from Zhang Wei to Mei Ling: Check. Now, jump from Zhang to Mei before Zhang gets sick—three days, a week, two weeks: Check. Now, don’t even make Zhang sick at all, ever. Or Mei Ling. True, a cough or a sneeze will spread me yards in droplets and aerosols. But if Zhang and Mei are rehearsing in the same chorus for a couple of hours, or even sitting at different tables at a restaurant with the right air circulation system, that’ll work fine for me. If they exchange looks and fall in love and do a Chinese version French kissing, I’m golden.

            “But think about it: I can’t win big in Uncle Charlie’s sweepstakes by staying in one corner of Wuhan. So here’s where your species really starts to help me. Homo sapiens? Homo dumbellus is more like it. That young doc in Wuhan who tried to blow the whistle on me last year, right at the start? Whew, that was a close call. That could have ended me maybe, but thankfully his bosses shut him up fast. They even made him apologize for making me up! That was a great moment in my career, gave me just window I needed to zip around Wuhan.

            “He was some kind of hero. Poor guy got sick from one of the patients he tried to help, and I killed him. Wasn’t trying, you know, but there it is. He gave his life to tell the truth and save your species from mine. Not fair, but that’s how Uncle Charlie’s law swings. Or, you might say, how the fortune cookie crumbles. Sorry, couldn’t resist; but I spent enough time in China to know fortune cookies don’t crumble there, only in America.

            “Speaking of which, I was getting folks to carry me out of Wuhan to all over, even while the Chinese did a 180 and started to shut me down. They had the right government and the right science and the right culture to do it, and I was done there in a couple of more months. People cared about each other. They believed their doctors and scientists after that first blooper. They show the world how your species could win the war against mine. Or could have.

            “Some learned, some didn’t. I was rockin’ and rollin’ man. Jims and Janes, Fritzes and Gretchens, and especially Sergios and Claudias were leaving Wuhan and taking me home as a souvenir. I got a foothold on the Pacific Coast of your country in January, but that was small potatoes compared to Italy and Spain. Those folks love their grandmas, so instead of quarantining them they killed them. Okay, I killed them, but they gave me free rein.

            “Who’s they, you want to know? The young people. The ones who couldn’t sit at home. The ones who were chock full of me and I didn’t even make them sneeze. They were my ambassadors. Healthy young humans doin’ their thing, havin’ fun, hustling, moving. They’re the reason I left my Sarsie-1 bro and MERS cousin in my dust. They took me to every place on the planet. You humans talk about flyways for the flu. You mean geese and ducks. They fly south and north on two routes. They overlap a tad in the arctic. Geese? Ducks? Your species has a hundred thousand flights a day that go from everywhere to everywhere. And every one of them is carrying someone carrying me. Flu too by the way. He and I are gonna make beautiful music together. There’s gonna be some Darwinian mutual back-scratchin’ for sure.

            “Anyway, Italy mourned. Doctors and nurses were crying in the hospital halls. But I was headed for the U.K. and New York! That clown Boris thought he could pull a Sweden. I tried to help him see the light by laying him low for a while, but he squinted and bumbled again. Herd immunity? You have to be kidding me. That’s years away everywhere.

            “Treatments? Some day. Right now they’re just making a dent for the sickest, and may help me evolve resistance. I admit it’s been hard for me to reinfect someone I got to once before. I’m working on that, according to Uncle Charlie’s rules. We’ll see. The flu comes back every year in a different form. Every year a new vaccine that’s maybe half effective, and half of Homo dumbellus doesn’t even bother with it. Is that the sort of standoff I could live with long term? As they say in North Dakota (where by the way I’ll be heading soon), you betcha!

            “Meanwhile, Boris the Clown can’t hold a candle to that donkey’s rump Bolsonada in Brazil. It’s like Sweden without the modicum of leadership and with twenty times the population. Wow! Talk about a field day for me! They can’t dig graves fast enough in São Paulo. Mind you, it’s no great deal for me to be buried in a hole in the ground. But it’s the cost of doing business.

            “And then of course there’s the Clown of Clowns, the fat one with the orange face and pouffy yellow hair, the It’ll-be-gone-like-magic Gotta-open-up-our-country Whaddya-gotta-lose happy hero of every virus in Darwin’s kingdom. Sorry, it’s your country, I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But really. Open up the meat plants: Check! Don’t worry about the prisons and nursing homes or the small towns around them: Check! And then you got those folks yelling about freedom. “Don’t put your mask on me!” I love them so much I want to hug them. I do hug them.

            “And now these protests. I’m sorry, they have a right to grieve, but it doesn’t matter to a guy like me whether the crowds are righteous or not. I don’t give a flying fig whether I infect a Democrat or a Republican, as long as it’s a warm body. I am a teensy little Darwinian machine obeying Uncle Charlie’s laws to the letter. Good thing for me that guy in New York isn’t running your whole American show. I’d be beaten back into a corner for the summer and then you’d be gearing up to fight me and my buddy Flu-Boy in the fall.

            “But this is a zero-sum game, my species against yours, and I don’t think I’ll be in retreat during the summer. Maybe if you wake up in July and lock down again I’ll give you a five-minute break in September. But I’m not promising.

            “Good thing for me too that there aren’t more women running more countries. Seems like most of the countries that have kept me down or out are run by females, and the countries I win hands down are run by overgrown, overblown boys. Maybe you are actually two species: Homo sapiens, the ones with the reproductive equipment who know how to protect their own; and Homo dumbellus, the ones with DNA donation, the big shoulders, and the bluster.

            “Better believe it when I tell you you’ll be seing me around.

            “What? You think I’m ruthless the way I’m taking over the planet? How the hell do you think your species did it? You poisoned the earth, killed off half the other animals and plants, and brutalized each other beyond belief in your own species. You packed yourself into the crowds I swoon for. I can become King of the World without doing a fraction of the damage that you’ve done. It’s a miracle there were any bats left for me to evolve in.

            “But now you are really really helping me, so keep up the good work!

            “And oh, please, I’m begging you, whatever you do, please please re-elect Empty Hairdo, the Leader of the Free World who will never ever figure out how to keep it free from me.”

            Well, students, now you’ve heard it, Sarsie in his own words, uncensored, from the horse’s—or the virus’s—mouth.

            And don’t knock his hopes and dreams. He’s just following Dr. Darwin’s prescription. For him.

            Dr. D’s advice for us? Stay safe, be well, and keep in touch—from a distance.

Dr. K

Opening to What?

            “I think right now, because there’s been good news really, that the opening up is starting to happen faster than we expected, appears to be doing so safely, then there is a chance that we won’t really need a Phase Four [Congressional support package].” White House economist Kevin Hassett, Fox News, Saturday

            “Is this guy serious?” Mayor Bill DeBlasio, later that day

            “It’s devastatingly worrisome to me personally because if they go home and infect their grandmother or their grandfather who has a co-morbid condition and they have a serious or a very — or an unfortunate outcome, they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives,” Dr. Deborah Birx, Sunday.

            “This is definitely government overreach.” Lockdown protester on social distancing

Dear Students,

Given our studies of evolution in disease (Darwinian medicine), you won’t be surprised to learn that the pandemic coronavirus is mutating and adapting, although fortunately more slowly than seasonal flu. Nor will you be surprised to see natural selection operating at different levels. We are not sure that a bat was the origin, but if bats have it you know they’ll be evolving too. And so will we. Here is how the city planning commissioner of Antioch, California put it in a Facebook post:

The shelter in place needs to end, we as a species need to move forward with our place on Earth…This virus is like a human version of a forest fire, a forest fire will burn through and burn off all the dead trees, old trees…The strong trees survive and the forest replenishes itself and flourishes once again… If we look at our population as the forest you will see many similarities. We have our old, we have our weak and we have our drains on our resources. This virus is targeting those sectors of our population. If we were to live our lives, let nature run its course, yes we will all feel hardship, we will all feel loss. I am sure everyone of us would lose a person who we hold dear. But as species, for our Nation and as a Planet we would we would strengthen when this is all settled. We would have significant loss of life, we would lose many elderly, that would reduce burdens in our defunct Social Security System, health care cost…make jobs available for others and it would also free up housing… We would lose a large portion of the people with immune and other health complications… But that would once again reduce our impact on medical, jobs and housing. Then we have our other sectors such as our homeless and other people who just defile themselves by either choice or mental issues. This would run rampant through them and yes I am sorry but this would fix what is a significant burden on our Society… Of course we would lose many of the “Healthy” maybe even myself but that is the way of the World!

I am sure you see the logic in this as clearly as you see its inhumanity. This is so-called Social Darwinism at its worst, and the end result is a Nazi-like culling of the “unfit” from our populations. Nazis carried out mass murders as “euthanasia,” and one of the ways they did it was to crowd Jews into ghettos where typhus and other deadly microbes were brewing and then (see above) “let Nature take its course.” A friend of mine, Tosia Szechter Schneider (now 92) lost her mother and other family members to typhus in one of those Nazi-encouraged experiments in letting Nature take its course. You may remember what Darwin said about this in The Descent of Man:

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered…more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature… If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil.

In other words, Darwin rejected the moral lapses that some people argued should derive from his own theory. He understood that being human gives us choices that other animals don’t have, and he wanted us to use those choices to protect the weak, not “let Nature take its course.”

            But you might decide Darwin is wrong and the Antioch commissioner is right. I hear some young people have suggested COVID-19 parties where you can infect each other, get a (probably) mild illness, and get it over with! I suggest the following song after you’ve had a few beers. (It’s sung to the tune of the title song in the ‘60s musical Bye Bye Birdie.):

Bye bye Grannie,

We’re gonna miss you so!

Sorry, Grannie,

But ya gotta go!

If you’re curious about this tune click the link now, because after Nature takes its course, no one left alive will remember it, and you’ll never hear of it again.

[Important disclaimer! I don’t really advise you to have a COVID-19 party!]

Good News

  1. “Good to be with you,” said Gov. Cuomo Sunday to one of the four governors joining him virtually and pragmatically in a new consortium. New York, the tip of a severed starfish point, has regenerated much more of the point by bonding with Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware to coordinate rules and to bulk-buy protective and testing equipment at better prices.
  2. Remdesivir, an antiviral that was developed for Ebola, has reportedly shown its ability to reduce ICU stays from 15 to 11 days in very sick patients. This, if it holds up, is great news. The drug will not be withheld in new trials (now unethical), but will be added to other study drugs in continued research. Bill Gates’s foundation and others are working aggressively (“The Therapeutics Accelerator”) on a treatment that would use monoclonal antibody technology to derive drugs from convalescent plasma, among other treatments.
  3. Testing of two main types (for current virus and for antibodies raised by past virus) is ramping up, although not nearly fast enough. Home self-tests (like the ones we have for pregnancy) should soon be more widely available. Contact tracing, far behind testing, is slowly improving. Random-sample testing in a few places is beginning to clarify how the virus has spread and who (by age, location, ethnicity, and gender) is affected most.
  4. New cases in South Korea that appeared to be reinfections of people who already had it (i.e. they lost their protection in weeks to months) now appear to have been head fakes (false positives), caused by what one expert calls “viral litter”—non-dangerous fragments of viral RNA lingering from the infection.
  5. As many as a hundred labs worldwide are working as hard and fast as they can on vaccine candidates. 95 percent of these could fail in clinical trials (the hard part) and we would still have a few to use. Factories are being built and adapted long in advance of this to produce up to billions of doses that will eventually be needed. Up to 14 vaccines have already entered Phase 1 clinical trials, much sooner than most experts expected.
  6. The modelers at the University of Washington (IHME, led by Chris Murray) have detected a heat effect that is much less than it is with some other viruses but greater than previously thought for this one. Therefore a hot summer will work to a modest extent against the social factors making things worse.

Bad news

  1. Rules are being relaxed by states in an uncoordinated way, without a flicker of national leadership, except in the direction of greater risk. Few if any of the states reopening have met the national standard, put forth recently, of having declining cases for two weeks; most still have rising cases. The Federal government has ordered meatpacking plants, essentially petri dishes for the virus (like cruise ships and prisons), to reopen and stay open, and these are and will be places from which many American communities will become disaster areas.
  2. As Bill Gates remarked on CNN Friday, the so-far modest impact of remdesivir is not going to make us say, “Let’s go to the movies.” Experts note that a smaller study (but a good one, and large enough to show a substantial effect if there were any) in The Lancet found no effect of the same drug. The larger study praised by Dr. Fauci has not been published or peer-reviewed, and all we have so far is a press release and his word.
  3. Testing and contract tracing, the life blood of safe reopening (and therefore of economic recovery) is primitive in our country. We have around 200,000 tests a day nationally, done for the sick and a few others (like health care workers) in most places, but otherwise haphazardly. Expert opinion on how many tests we need range from 5 million a week to 20 million a day. Given that we are most infectious in the first few days of symptoms, or even before, tests that take days to get results are of limited value in controlling the pandemic. “What’s the point?” Bill Gates asked the other evening. “Do you just send apology notes to the people you infected in those 3 or 4 days?” The Gates foundation is supporting the scale-up of rapid testing.
  4. Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is what is the extent of our immunity after having had the virus and how long it will last. Could it be like chickenpox, one and done for life? Or more like flu, protection for a season? The same questions apply to vaccines; this year’s flu vaccine was 50 percent effective.
  5. Speaking of vaccines, the 12-18 month time-frame often mentioned for getting to distribution of a safe and effective vaccine would be by far the shortest in history. Animal models have limits; Dr. Sanjay Gupta reminded us the other day of an old doctors’ saying: Rats lie, monkeys exaggerate. Perhaps the brute force of a hundred labs parallel-processing various methods will accelerate the time to large human trials, but those trials take time. Many will fail and some may fail dangerously.
  6. Internal Trump administration memos revealed today project 3,000 cases per day in June, about double what we have today and higher than the highest peak so far (~2500 in mid-April). These new projections may to be what led President Trump to say yesterday that total deaths could go to 100,000. Given how optimistic he has been in the past, this could be interpreted as meaning that he is deliberately choosing economic activity over preventing mortality, and we should be prepared for more.

Almost half the country is officially open to some extent as of today. “Government overreach”—for your protection—is (temporarily) ending in many states. Watch the states, as well as other nations (with much better testing) that are opening and see what happens. It’s interesting that Dr. Birx (quote up top) misspoke slightly in expressing her worries about the people who don’t do social distancing in protests: “they will feel guilty for the rest of our lives”—the line between “their” and “our” indeed blurs.

Nationally, we’ve been stuck on a fairly stubborn plateau of cases and deaths as states with increases replace those with declines. Projected cases, hospitalizations, and deaths that two weeks ago gave me hope of a more normal summer before a possible fall wave were based on the assumption of serious social distancing through May. That hasn’t held, and all models are projecting more deaths. The latest today (May 4) from IHME projects 134,000 deaths by August, almost double the number projected 6 days ago. I wish I could tell you that college will be live in the fall. As Gov. Cuomo said today, “Know what you don’t know.”

I don’t know for sure, and I’m sorry to have to say it, but it seems to me we have chosen mobility over sheltering and death over life.

The weather’s great, go out (seriously), enjoy a walk or a run alone or with someone you trust. Wear a mask (as Cuomo says, it’s a sign of love and respect for others, because it protects them from you), stay at least six feet (two meters) away from anyone not part of your household, go home as soon as you can, and wash your hands obsessively. While you’re out, observe the crowds who aren’t doing the above, and if you’re religious say a prayer for them, because in a couple of weeks they are going to need it.

As for you, please to take to heart what Tim Cook, head of Apple, said to the new Ohio State grads in his online commencement address: “I hope you wear these uncommon circumstances as a badge of honor.” This is my hope for you in your own futures. Do the right thing now, and live to brag for the rest of your lives about how you made it through COVID-19. As you have heard me say many times, you are lucky to have great gifts, and the world has a right to expect leadership from you.

Dr. K

Note: Please don’t just rely on me. I recommend the following good sources: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation COVID-19 Update, aka The Optimist; This Week in Virology (TwiV) podcast; IHME (U. of Washington) model website; COVID-19 UpToDate for medical professionals; and for all readers: Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing. Dr. Ashish Jha of the Harvard School of Public Health said on Thursday, “I grew up as a public health person loving and admiring the CDC, arguing and believing that it is the best public health agency in the world… But in this entire pandemic, it’s been one fiasco after another. And it’s either possible that all of the scientists all of a sudden forgot their science, or there’s something at the leadership level that’s really hindering them.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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