“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.” —Albert Einstein
Over a very brief period of time the world has watched as an outbreak of a flu-like illness has pread, but is unlike any flu we have seen in over a hundred years, and has caused a novel constellation of clinical findings the likes of which we’ve never seen. Hundreds of infected people became thousands of infected, then tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions. As a virologist, I have an understanding of the science of viral infections and of viral pandemics; I have studied them for nearly four decades. The magnitude of this pandemic was worse than some, not as bad as others. But what I, and the totality of the scientific community, cannot understand is so much more than we do understand. Beginning with the most fundamental question of all—what is a virus?
We use scientific tenets and vernacular to mask our ignorance of even that most basic precept. Yes, the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 is an RNA virus encapsulated in a viral envelope that binds to cell receptors in our bodies, enters those cells, and takes over the protein manufacturing capacity of the cell. It then propagates itself into as many as a million progeny viruses which then spread to neighboring cells, ultimately resulting in profound tissue damage and destruction. Okay . . . but what is a virus? Why does it exist? What role do viruses play in the ecology of humanity, in our evolution as a species, and in determining our health and longevity? Do viruses have a purpose? It’s important to appreciate that in combatting a viral pandemic like COVID-19, we are fighting an entity of completely unknown origin and totally unknown purpose.
Viruses have been the objects of my research for decades and I’ve published many dozens of medical and scientific papers about them. This may sound heretical, but I consider viruses to be miraculous. What? In the era of COVID-19, how can I say viruses, which are so menacing, so threatening to all species and all societies, are miraculous? Depends on your definition of miracle, but mine is simple. Miracles are objects and events in nature and in our lives that cannot be fully explained or re-created. No one yet has created even a single virus from scratch, yet each virus can create one million more of itself in a matter of hours, shutting down the cell it infects, and, as we have so painfully learned recently from COVID-19, virtually shutting down all of human civilization!
But science has also taught us that viruses may have benefits for the world. They likely play a role in the evolution of species, transferring genetic material from one animal to another, and, over eons, some of those genes become permanent and inherited parts of human and other species’ genetic makeup. Viruses also contribute to the development of our immune systems, with mild viral infections protecting us against more severe diseases. And scientists have been able to harness viruses for the production of new treatments and vaccines that have saved millions of lives. Viruses are being developed as Trojan Horses, vectors with which to deliver gene therapy to patients with inherited conditions such as sickle cell disease and cystic fibrosis. Indeed, one of the approaches being used to develop COVID-19 vaccines also uses a benign virus as a Trojan horse, carrying hidden COVID-19 genetic material into our bodies and triggering protective immunity.
So as we continue to struggle to contain this pandemic and recover from it, and hail the miracle of the vaccines being administered millions of times a day in this country and around the world, consider the “miracle” of the virus that has caused the travails and tragedies of the past year and what it reveals about all we don’t know and don’t understand.