This is the fourth of several articles about COVID-19 and related topics by Dr. Jon Crosbie, an ISU alum, sports fanatic and all-around awesome Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine.
I suppose I am writing this out of jealousy. Why is it that some a**hole on the internet goes viral for claiming SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19/Coronavirus (I’m just going to call it C19) is this lab manufactured conspiracy without any actual real evidence? I (and so many others like me) have spent the better part of my adult life studying medicine and the human body and the bugs that infect it, and it’s like we’re screaming underwater.
Well, whatever. Everybody wants to win the lottery until they win the lottery and then fall down a gypsy curse, may-you-get-what-you-ever-wanted hellhole. Let’s monitor my tone here a little bit as we address the topic of conspiracy theories, lab creation, and accusation of general nefarious behavior of many people who are actually trying to help.
In an effort for this NOT to go viral, we’ll just keep this ironically aimed at viral characteristics, viral behavior, and medical history. Knowing the facts on this stuff will hopefully arm you with some information when you are inevitably confronted with another conspiracy “documentary” like “Plandemic.”
Fact #1. Novel Viruses happen because viruses cross species ALL THE TIME.
Okay, so what’s a novel virus? A novel virus is a virus that hasn’t ever been seen before by people and has never been studied.
‘Kay, so how’s that happen? That happens when viruses jump species. Animals are reservoirs for all sorts of viruses. They’re just like us, in the sense that they have cellular machinery that viruses want to hijack. Remember that viruses are like Agent Smith in the Matrix – Reloaded…they just want to make more of themselves. And, by hook or by crook, they’ll do it. They’ll do it by hijacking our cellular machinery or they’ll do it by hijacking any other animal’s cellular machinery. This can happen in several different ways…let’s start with Ebola.
Ebola is often carried by monkeys. Now in Africa, the hunting and butchering of monkeys for meat is a common practice. Ebola is a blood borne illness, and the DNA makeup of monkeys and humans is close enough such that Ebola can infect both of us. So a hunter goes out, shoots a monkey infected with Ebola, butchers the monkey, cuts his hand with the knife that he butchered the monkey with, gets Ebola, becomes Patient Zero and infects his entire village. Incidentally, this is likely how HIV/AIDS happened as well.
Why wouldn’t the Ebola monkey have been dead? Well, this is because that even though a virus can INFECT both species doesn’t mean that it will AFFECT both species the same way. There’s actually a virus called McHV1 (Cercopithecine herpes virus 1) that can affect both Asiatic macaques and humans. In macaques, it simply causes monkey cold sores. In humans, it causes a fatal encephalitis. McHV1 is also fatal to many other species of monkeys, just not Asiatic macaques. And don’t forget, the very first vaccine and ridding the world of smallpox happened because cowpox can infect both humans and cows.
The point is here that co-species infection happens quite a bit when the genomes of two species are similar enough. Just because a virus can infect two different species, it doesn’t necessarily mean that each species will be affected the same way.
You already knew this could happen. Rabies is actually in the same family of viruses as Ebola (mononegavirales). I don’t need to convince you that you can get rabies from a bat or a dog foaming at the mouth. Stephen King made a fair amount of money on this with his book Cujo…oddly, nobody has accused him of propping up a rabies-based fear agenda for his own profit when that’s exactly what he did. But I digress.
So that’s one way a virus could be novel…the virus was sitting in an animal reservoir that was otherwise undiscovered by humans until it came out to play.
Fact #2. Viral genomes change. Because sometimes they’re not very good at copying themselves. And sometimes, when you combine this with species crossover, something scary happens.
Do you remember coronavirus round 1? This was SARS in 2003. Evidence shows us that there was SARS-CoV-1 (the ’03 virus) in an animal called a Himalayan palm civet. Here’s the thing about coronaviruses both round 1 (SARS-CoV-1) and our current problem round 2 (SARS-CoV-2)…they’re both RNA viruses. This is different than being a DNA virus.
You are a DNA based organism. This is a good thing. Be happy about this. When your DNA replicates itself, it usually does so with remarkable accuracy – AND YOU WANT THIS. You want the copies of your blueprints to be just as good as the original blueprints they were made from. Here’s the thing: RNA viruses are NOT good at this.
When an RNA virus replicates itself, the process is notoriously error prone. This causes mutations, and it’s the going theory as to where SARS-CoV-1 (Coronavirus Round 1) came from. The RNA virus copied itself, and “accidentally” caused a mutation that made it easier for the virus to infect human cells, rather than just monkey cells. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only thing the mutation changed. Not only could the virus be transmitted from monkeys to humans more efficiently, it could be transmitted between humans much more efficiently. And that was a big deal.
See, rabies doesn’t transmit between humans, unless there’s some extraordinary circumstances. I think there is a case of a rabies-positive human donating a cornea to somebody (they didn’t know the person had died of rabies) and then the person who got the cornea also got rabies and died. This also shows up in a very sad episode of Scrubs which, by the way, is the most accurate of all the medical shows.
SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 are different in the sense that they jump from human to human quite easily…much more easily than rabies. And of course, this is the reason we’re in the mess we’re in.
This also happened in 2009 with H1N1. It was an influenza virus (also RNA based) that was a novel virus, as well. What happened was several strains of swine influenza (we weren’t supposed to call it swine flu here in Iowa because everybody was worried it would hurt pork production), got mixed together with a human strain and an avian strain.
You read that right, it was a chimeric bird/swine/human flu. It was something called a quadruple reassortment. This type of reassortment is far beyond my paygrade, but you’d think that a “quadruple reassortment of swine, avian, and human genomes” would inspire all manner of conspiracy theories about how this was created in a lab.
But it didn’t. Why is that? Well, because it originated on the border of Mexico and the United States, and quickly spread to the US and Canada. And people don’t like to throw stones in glass houses. Not surprisingly, this type of influenza had never been seen before and the way the virus “looked” to immune systems made it such that it was more fatal to younger people.
Look, I get that everybody is angry about everything that’s going on. Try to understand something…this is going to happen again. It’s going to keep happening again, because as long as we come into contact with animals, particularly in the context of animals that are kept together in close quarters, we run the risk of RNA viruses crossing species and jumping into our world.
I want to make something very clear…I’m not saying that this is the fault of anybody who keeps animals, particularly farmers who raise animals. In fact, I would argue that farmers lessen this risk, because, while they keep animals in quarters, they also monitor the health of those animals and vaccinate for those animals. If we went back to hunting bison on the range, and some wild bison-related virus jumped species, we would be far less easily able to contain, study, learn from, and prevent such a thing. You wanna try and vaccinate a herd of bison? It’s also important to note that currently there’s evidence that this species jump occurred from bats to humans. Don’t you dare blame any pig farmers for this.
I suppose somebody might say “just don’t eat animals” or “don’t keep animals.” Well, here’s the deal: I very much enjoy bacon cheeseburgers and so do a whole bunch of other people. The world isn’t going to stop eating meat or stop considering a dog a part of their family. I’m very happy that farmers make my favorite sandwich (yes, a hamburger is a sandwich, and yes, I went there) possible. People who have dogs and cats and consider them part of the family…that’s a risk, too.
All I’m saying is that when you keep animals close (and there are many good reasons to do so), this is always going to be a risk. It’s been a risk to humans for thousands of years and it will continue to be a risk. Knowing that, if you want to still believe that this was a lab creation, I can’t really argue the point. Anything is possible, although if you’re a free-thinking, research-doer, you may want to consider the possibility that the people peddling these narratives of lab creation are selling a book or want to get famous (or they run an urgent care and are losing a bunch of money). Sure, it COULD be a Bond-villain-esque plot to bring down humanity. However, there’s a much more obvious and easy explanation, and it’s an explanation that’s happened many times over – viruses infect multiple species and they mutate.
And, spoiler alert, it’s going to happen again. The next time you’re on YouTube, why not enjoy a cat video instead? Of course the cat might be the harbinger of feline leukemia virus, an RNA retrovirus that causes blood cancer in cats, and you’ll spend the remainder of time hoping THAT doesn’t cross species…
Let’s just get through this pandemic. Do the stuff you’re supposed to. Wear the damn mask. You’re out nothing, other than convenience. Keep socially distancing. Do what you need to for the health of your country and fellow citizens, yeah?
Dr. Jon Crosbie, D.O., is a Physician and Assistant Professor at Des Moines University Medical School.