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“In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”–Theodore Roethke (new information about the novel coronavirus)

2020-03-28

(image courtesy of pixabay and TheDigitalArtist)

Two New Yorker articles recently have provided me with new ideas about the information being developed by scientists on the new coronavirus.  The first, by Siddharta Mukherjee, describes the ancient practice of variolation for smallpox in India.  He introduces us to the concept of infectious load, or the number of virus particles to which a person has been exposed.  There is some evidence that the smaller the number of particles with which one is confronted (hundreds to thousands), the milder the resulting infection and the longer it takes to become ill.  This makes sense.  The article is worth reading, although it leaves out the advances by Jenner.  This country doctor discovered that those who had been infected with cowpox (a very mild disease carried by cows) obtained lasting immunity from smallpox.  This led to the practice of inoculation, which eventually superseded variolation because of its greater safety (although variolation practiced by experienced specialists was relatively safe).

The second, by Carolyn Kormann, explains how prior research on coronaviruses has led to new knowledge on the current outbreak of the novel virus.  There are too many details to mention here, but the most important are that these viruses have circulated in bats for thousands of years or more, they are among the largest RNA viruses around, and that for every confirmed case there are probably five to ten inapparent cases.  Four species of horseshoe bats carry a coronavirus which is more than ninety percent identical to the novel virus.  Bats can simultaneously carry multiple types of coronavirus, and when these viruses coinfect a single cell, they recombine in unforeseen ways.  In 2013, one such virus was found which shared ninety-six percent of its RNA sequence with the novel virus.

That virus has further mutated, possibly through pangolins (the scaly anteater, about the size of a cat) and jumped into a human sometime in November.  Since then, it has spread undetected, until forty-one cases of severe pneumonia were described in Wuhan, China that were caused by the novel virus.  Many, but not all, of these cases were linked to one of the infamous “wet markets”, giant animal retail facilities, in which multiple species of wild and tame animals are housed together for sale to those seeking delicacy meats.  This virus was found in blood and other matter left over from slaughtering these animals.  The wet markets were closed, but secret traffic in various animals continues.

While the uninformed among us may blame the Chinese taste for bats, pangolins, civet cats, and other unusual animals, in fact the blame lies with careless storage of live animals and slaughtering at the time of sale– which could happen anywhere.  China is one of the two largest countries in the world, with more than 1.3 billion humans, many crowded together into cities larger than New York.  Careful slaughtering and disposal of blood and fecal matter could have prevented this jump from animals to humans because cooking destroys the virus.

That’s all I have for today.  If you can access these two articles, I suggest you read them carefully.  Nonsubscribers can get a few articles for free.

PS the quote comes from the head of an article by Allison Glock on CNN (it’s basically a very well written tearjerker), which you can pick up for free on the newsfeed of an Apple iphone.

 

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