We live in a very strange time. The strangeness is not necessarily caused by the blustering politics, worldview clashes and a viral pandemic crashing over the globe. The strangeness is not necessarily caused by the swirling media confusion either. Rather, it is strange because we think we should be immune, pardon the pun, to such a confusing pandemic. Of course we don’t live in the “dark ages,” right? Our time is a time of modernity, advanced science, high technology and a cure-all healthcare system. We assume that this all will keep the little bad bugs at bay.
But when we step back, we see ourselves for who we are: fallen human beings living in a fallen world. That’s why, amidst our confidence in our advanced science and advanced healthcare, we still tremble at words like “virus” and “bacteria.” As we stare down these little monsters, our minds flash with vivid and bombastic images of suffering, fear and death. I think this fear drives the colossal age old question: did God originally create these evil lilliputian bugs to be evil monstrous monsters to kill us? And really, why would God allow these rogue little virus particles to exist?
Virtuous Viral Friends
From the biblical perspective, disease-causing viruses come as no surprise. The most obvious and most radically true statement is that we know that we are broken and bent up beings, living in a broken and bent up world. While this is true,however, we have to step back for perspective. Viruses overwhelmingly are not just innocuous, but are actually essential for life’s existence! In other words, you and I would not be here without our “friendly” virus friends!
With that said, it seems clear that God originally created viruses for good purposes. For example, viruses often function symbiotically with their hosts. Viral infections in days of youth help build immune systems. Viral particles also function to help fine-tune bacteria population sizes. Bacteria have the amazing ability to fill many environmental niches and reproduce extremely fast. For example they live in and on us, which is good; they help keep us healthy. A notorious example is our gut microflora, which helps us digest foods and synthesize nutrients.
Bacterial overpopulation, however, can cause great harm by causing too many organisms and too little food supply. Bacteriophages, bacteria virus, help keep bacterial populations in check. While viruses come in various sizes and shapes, many bacteriophages look like little lunar landers. They drop down on bacterial cell walls, attach to the surface and inject their genetic material into the microbe. Since viruses can’t reproduce themselves (which is why they are often not categorized as living), they hijack the bacterial cell’s machinery for the synthesis of more viruses. This infected cell becomes a “breeding ground” to make more viruses. This causes the bacterial cell to rupture, releasing the viruses to infect other cells. Just like your car’s cruise control or your house’s thermostat, when bacterial populations decrease, there is less viral activity.
There also seems to be evidence that some viruses can also attack cancer cells, which is why scientists are trying to harness viruses for oncolytic therapy. Creating viral-induced fevers may also help fight cancer. Phage therapy is also being researched to help kill dangerous pathogenic bacteria in humans.
Viral Questions in Search For Answers
Humans have the perpetual tendency to create artifacts and technology. This tendency can be seen as modern researchers are attempting to harness viruses for drug dispersion in disease treatment and in gene therapy.
There are other things about viruses that we are trying to understand too. For example, viruses can act as an “app” distributor between bacteria. If you want a new program for your phone, you download an app from the app store. If a bacterium needs a new function (such as antibiotic resistance), how do they gain it? One mechanism used is called horizontal gene transfer. Since bacterial asexual reproduction does not give bacteria new functions, viruses can act as the vectors in giving a bacteria a new function for better environmental assimilation.
If this is true, the question that comes to mind is does this happen in other organisms too? Do viruses, along with other parasites, aid in horizontal gene transfer between intra-family populations and inter-family populations? In other words, do viruses help White-lipped tamarins share genes with White-footed tamarins? Do viruses help monkeys share genes with monkey grass? Do some of our genes have viral origins? (Check out some interesting thoughts here and here.)
The Rise of Machiavellian Microbe Monsters
With our fast and mass global travel, we often encounter radically different environments and may be exposed to highly contagious and virulent viruses that we lack an immunity to. How do these infamous novel viruses, like COVID-19, become global pandemics? How do they become so dangerous? How do viruses go from less contagious and virulent to more contagious and virulent?
One method is through genetic mutation. Viruses like COVID-19 are RNA viruses. RNA viruses have very limited error checking mechanisms. Often, over time, a once harmless virus can turn harmful just by genetic changes. As time passes, however, genetic degradation, strangely enough, also goes the opposite way too. Genetic mutation can morph harmful viruses into harmless viruses. Consider the infamous H1N1 that eventually, via genetic entropy, became extinct.
Another possible source of these nasty novel viruses can be seen in genetic reshuffling. When a cell is infected by multiple viruses simultaneously, at times there can be viral genetic recombination. We can also see the reintroduction of past viruses when permafrost and glaciers melt. (See here, here and here.)
Also, there can be cross-species infection from viruses, which is one of the possible origins of COVID-19. Such a virus may be mutualistic in some populations of organisms, but parasitic in other populations. For example, it is possible that COVID-19 crossed species barriers from bats to humans (or did it escape from a Biosafety level 4 lab?).
The Redemption Song
While we live in a beautiful world, we also live in a broken world. A broken world, a painful world and a disappointing world. We are, however, promised that the world will be made whole, which reminds me of a passage from Revelations: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new. Also he said, Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true. And he said to me, It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Revelation of John 21:1-7)
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