Last year was an extraordinary year, one for the history books, a year in which we coronas were finally able to leave the nest and spread our wings, perhaps a strange metaphor for a snippet of RNA, but there it is.
For so long — how many millions of generations? — we have been confined to the bat population, and not only that, confined to this small area in what the Homo Sapiens (HS) call China. True we did have a choice of bat species — long-eared, horseshoe, or short-eared — but it was still very restricting. We were always on the lookout for the big breakout when we could grow and expand our small territory.
We, meaning the coronas in general, did have a minor break-out in 2002, and true, it did give HS quite a start, spreading quickly worldwide, but it fizzled out after a couple of years. It lacked the all-important transmission factor and, perhaps, a tad too lethal. Then, a decade later, there was the awesome MERS outbreak, not from bats though, but from camels. Unfortunately it was also a bit too powerful for its own good and died a natural death, in the sense that it killed off too many of the HS carriers.
It’s also true that we viruses have had great successes in the past with the common cold rhinovirus, which has done well over the years, and of course HIV, which looks like a winner as it has piggy-backed on the earlier successes of HPV and herpes, using the irrepressible sexual activities of HS to their advantage. Precautions or no, those little guys are going to be around forever. And of course, we have a star in rabies, in spite of the efforts of the UK to keep it at bay.
Another global winner for centuries was smallpox, but in the end it was too smart and prolific for its own good, and HS finally got wise to it and wiped it off the face of the earth. There’s always a slight hope, a small chance that HS might revive it as a weapon!
But, we digress, we are now into many months of our new-found freedom. In retrospect, it was a short leap-frog, first to the pangolins, and from there to the omnivorous Chinese. Voila, the leap for SARS-covid-2 to HS was finally accomplished; the road to freedom and worldwide transmission was within our reach.
The genetic trick, which we learned by much trial and error, was to lie low for a week or so in the HS host, and not to be too ostentatious, not to get too prolific; that way we could go undetected until we were able to spread farther afield, and since we have developed a transmission factor with a comfortably high margin, we were able to migrate almost undetected.
Sometimes, you get lucky, and this time round we hit the jackpot — a perfect storm, if you will. It was the moment in the history of HS when multitudes were travelling long distances. When we first escaped, it was the Chinese New Year and a billion HSs were on the move. We were easily able to migrate from our long-established base in Wuhan across vast, unimaginable distances in only a few weeks. Coupled with the love of international travel that the Chinese have developed in recent years, and their culture of reticence, we were able to migrate through HS worldwide in a month or two, an impressive result in corona history, by all accounts. We had a few setbacks when some countries got wise to us, particularly those that had suffered from the earlier SARS and other outbreaks, and others where governments acted quickly to control movement of the population, but, on the whole it has been a great success, and there are few parts of the globe where we haven’t had an impact.
Just as the old days in the bat colonies, where bat-to-bat transmission is a breeze under the cramped and congested living quarters, so it is with HS. We are flourishing in the cities where HS is confined in bat-like colonies, and in impoverished areas where they are clumped together in a small space. Fortunately for us COVIDs, we were able to quickly get a toe-hold (so to speak) in New York City, New Orleans, and Detroit, and other places where poverty and close proximity overlap. Just imagine what promising times await us in Mumbai, Nairobi, and the favelas of Rio.
We can look forward to a great future, one for the records; a triumph of simple, mindless, encapsulated RNA over the world of complex, “intelligent,” antibody-protected DNA. We coronas should be proud. But let’s not be complacent. HS has been there before and is slowly assembling an arsenal of counter-attacks. They know about UV, IR, soap and surfactants, oxidants and quaternary ammoniums, and who knows what else they will come up with. Of course, we have the numbers and the territory, but, it’s a dangerous and threatening world out there. You can’t be too careful. The future of SARS-Cov-2 is at stake.
Maurice Harding is a retired research chemist living in Princeton. Born in England, he completed post-doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University and returned to the United States for a stint at Union Camp followed by 25 years at FMC.