From Killer to Common Cold
A virus, yet again, changed the world. A bag of protein and genetic material intent on making copies of itself has been unleashed on humans.
SARS-CoV-2—the virus responsible for causing Covid-19—isn’t even a living thing. A virus is just a tiny collection of proteins and genetic material wrapped in your own cellular membrane with one goal: to make more copies of itself.
This killer virus jumped from bats into humans, rapidly traversing the globe in the respiratory secretions of an interconnected planet. Yet, since the introduction of animal domestication, human pandemics from viruses have been relatively commonplace. These human pandemics have shaped our shared histories.
Other Killers have Shaped our Shared Histories
Consider a virus like smallpox. Once a common cause of childhood death and disfigurement, evidence of this virus has been found on mummified remains from ancient pharaohs. Waves of this viral pandemic wiped out vast numbers of humans, from European royalty to entire Aztec and Inca civilizations. Smallpox influenced politics in Europe and decimated the native populations of the New World, allowing settler colonialism to flourish. There are multiple examples of pandemics every century, and now, after a one-hundred-year hiatus, another pandemic virus is upon us.
Walk in the Shoes of Killers
Although viruses are not living, it might be helpful to consider viruses like SARS-CoV-2 as if they lived, breathed, and walked, just like us. What if we were to walk a mile in the shoes of SARS-CoV-2? How does a virus see its human host? Can we learn something about Covid-19 by thinking about how a virus experiences the world?
On one side, there is a virus that evolves and modifies the rules of the game while in progress. On the other side, we humans strive to understand the rules, anticipating what changes (both for us and the virus) are inevitably in store. One thing is clear—this virus, SARS-Co-V-2, will change people around the globe.
Many have struggled to learn the science of virology and epidemiology through the lenses of political, social, and economic concerns. We are seeing the messy give-and-take of the scientific process in action, occurring simultaneously with haphazard policy proposals. Too often during this pandemic, policymakers endorse a solution now, only to scorn the same solution later. The political response to the pandemic feels like constructing your parachute after jumping off the plane.
Instead of focusing on the rapidly changing political and scientific landscape for bites and bytes of information, what if we instead profiled Covid-19 like we were profiling a criminal? Let’s line up all the usual suspects! Who (or what) has done something like this before? What can we learn by looking at prior pandemics, and, more specifically, at the family of coronaviruses that already infects humans? We might not be able to sentence our culprit (or cure it for that matter), but we can hopefully learn enough about Covid-19 to predict parts of its behavior and know what to expect in the next few years and beyond.
Profiling From Killers To Common Cold
Similar crimes are committed by similar offenders. This allows us to look at other pandemics and consider how Covid-19 is different. Can we learn something from the crimes of smallpox and influenza that might inform us about the future of Covid-19? Next, an offender’s crimes will be similar in nature. We know there are seven other human coronaviruses currently in existence. Can we look at the crimes of the other coronaviruses and figure out what to expect with Covid-19? Have any others gone from killer to common cold?
Rather than using the give and take of scientific progress to predict the future of Covid-19, what if we used what we already know about evolution and virus/host interactions to make future inferences? As we build the scientific evidence base to better understand Covid-19, is there a way to know now, in advance, how it will all end? Yes.
Destiny is Already Written
I believe the destiny of SARS-CoV-2 is already written. With or without a vaccine, with or without an effective treatment, with or without expected technological advances, we are destined to interact with this virus forever. Only a major paradigm-shifting development of the future—something truly out of left field—will rid this world of Covid-19.
There are already four coronaviruses that are endemic and cause the common cold. Endemic means that they circulate widely, at all times, and in low levels in human populations throughout the world. SARS-CoV-2 will become the fifth endemic human coronavirus. Believe it or not, the process of a coronavirus becoming endemic has already happened at least once before in our written history. Already, a coronavirus in our shared history has gone from killer to common cold.
Even though we cannot eradicate Covid-19, it will be less lethal in the future. This is predictable either through evolution of the virus itself or through changes in its host. Humans, our immune systems, or our cultures will change the face of this killer disease so that it resembles the common cold.
From Killer to Common Cold
Pandemics and infectious diseases have killed more people and shaped human history more than any other aspect of nature. We have been in an arms race with infections since the beginning.
Although there are still many places on earth where infectious diseases are the number one killer of young children, diseases of civilization such as heart disease and cancer have overtaken infectious causes of death in wealthy countries. The impact of infection on our daily life has faded. It has been over one hundred years since the last truly devastating pandemic plagued us. We forgot. We did not plan, and deaths and disabilities from Covid-19 are the inevitable and unfortunate consequences of not preparing for the usual suspects to return to their old, criminal ways.
From Killer to Common Cold is short book. Using basic virology and evolutionary biology, I aim to convince you that Covid-19 will become endemic no matter what humans do. We will need to learn to live with this virus, and I hope to show you how to do so.
Covid-19 is here to stay, but rather than drinking from the fire hose of ongoing scientific discovery, what can we learn from a review of science theory? We have evidence and probable cause. It is time to prosecute SARS-CoV-2 and understand the fallout from the crime. Instead of looking at statistics, modeling, and the ongoing messiness in medical journals, let’s look at history to see potential futures.
This is from chapter one from the covid book: From Killer to Common Cold
eBook now available!