Surviving Influenza – Chapter One cont’d – Viruses, Just What Are They?

Viruses, Just What Are They?

If viruses could speak, they would have a long story to tell. They have been around for two to three billion years, all the way back to when life on Earth consisted of one-celled bacterium.

Thank the electron microscope we know viruses are the cause of Yellow Fever, Chicken Pox, Smallpox, Ebola, AIDS, the common cold as well as Influenza.
Interestingly, the majority of viruses are harmless. They don’t infect us and cause disease. And they are essential for evolution. As Wolfherd Weidel wrote, “Nothing brings us closer to the riddle to life—and to its solution—as viruses.” It would seem we aren’t there yet!

But our concern in this handbook doesn’t lie on viewing the goodness of a virus over time. Rather our focus is on a virus’s ability to disrupt our immune system and cause sickness and death.

Bernard Dixon in his book, POWER UNSEEN wrote, “A small bacterium weighs one trillionth of a gram and a blue whale 100 million grams. Yet a bacterium can kill a whale.”

And a virus is oh so much smaller than any bacteria could ever dream of being. Its kill rate is impressive: up to 50 million in 1918, the first pandemic of what is now known as swine flu; and now Liberia, in 2014, struggling with the Ebola virus, worries for its very survival as a country.

The medicalese or fancyspeak for a virus is an obligate intracellular parasite. This means a virus is a parasite that is obligated to use another living thing’s cellular apparatus in order to survive.

And with as much havoc as a virus is capable, it is not considered a living substance, to most scientists. (You can make up your own mind.) It cannot replicate on its own, breathe oxygen, can’t ingest food or eliminate waste.

We can’t see them as they float around in the air, or on water, or in food, just waiting to invade a living organism so they can survive. With no reproductive capabilities of their own they have choice but to link up to one of our host cells, pirating the cell’s machinery.

So, what do we need to know about these viruses, these “obligate host cell parasites” without getting into too much detail?

As said, a virus is completely dependent on another life to survive, to reproduce itself. It can use cells from humans but it can also replicate inside a bacteria, a plant or an animal. They are parasites through and through, hijacking living cells to do their bidding.

The whole viral structure is called a virion and the outer part is called the capsid. Some viruses have an envelope that surrounds the outer layer but that is getting into too much detail.

For a virus to do us damage, the protein coat of the virus has to fit into a receptor site on our human cell. Attaching itself, the cell membrane then enfolds, pinching off a tiny vesicle that contains the virus, allowing it entry.

Once inside, the virus immediately makes copies of itself. The hijacked host cell has no choice but to churn out viral particles as it respond to the virus’s control tower, its nucleic acid core.

It’s important to know that different viruses vary greatly in shape, size, and complexity but they all share two basic structures: the genetic material of a nucleic acid core (either DNA or RNA) and a protein coating that protects this nucleic acid.

In other words, any one virus is made up of small bits of genetic material wrapped by a protein core. There are also proteins called receptors on the outside of the virus that allows it to recognize proteins in the host cell’s membrane.

All viruses have their specialty. The host cell they are attracted to may be in your nose or mouth, or elsewhere and their traveling route can be by air (for example Influenza), or by water, or through food. Whatever part of the body and whatever route, the virus then pierces the membrane of its new host so it can enter in order to divide and multiply.

Do you remember endoplasmic reticulum and ribosome and cytoplasm from biology class? This equipment is what a virus lacks and so forces the host cell to become its slave for a day or two until the host bursts open from all the copies being made inside it. But by that time it’s too late. The viruses have done what they set out to do: replicate themselves.

Now, while this is going on your immune system—our body’s defense system—begins to take action. One mode is killer cells, white blood cells that have been on the lookout for any unwanted pathogens including a virus on an ongoing basis. These killer cells have friends in high places and once they are alerted to a viral invasion they call on them- proteins called antibodies-that will recognize the virus, (at least if this type of virus has been in the body previously). These antibodies will stick to the trespasser, so that the killer cells can gobble the virus up.

Thankfully (or we’d all be dead) this process usually kills the virus. But if it doesn’t, it and a zillion others like it are able to make a lot of new viruses, causing an infection, making us potentially very sick.

Only new viruses, or more accurately, new combinations of older viruses, can destroy us. Over history many have been eradicated or been minimized because some people survived, not succumbing to the challenges of a virus attacking the immune system.

Even the virus of a common cold could have killed you or me if we had lived thousands of years ago. As our bodies came to know this virus, our immune systems were challenged, over and over, to garner an appropriate response. Once a devastating and terminal viral attack, we finally became “immune” and now the common cold is just an annoyance that leaves our heads stuffed up, our noses running but it doesn’t kill us.

The danger of a virus lies in the fact that it is constantly mutating or as some call it, emerging. This means it will have less chance of it being recognized by the immune system and the body will react to it like it is a new virus.

This ability to mutate as well as integrate virions (virus particles) from pigs or birds is the reason viruses have the potential to cause global disaster and why vaccines have little benefit. It is hard to create a vaccine because no one can predict how it will change.

•Emerging Viruses like Ebola

Ebola is a virus. In 1976 in Zaire, when the Ebola virus first emerged from the jungles of Central Africa, transferred from animal to human, it annihilated 90% of the population it encountered. The reason for this is that humans had never encountered the exact structure of an Ebola virus. Victims died within a week of exposure, not enough time for the host to spread the virus, and they both withered away and died.

One of the tragedies of deforestation, a practice that disrupts the ecology amid poor harvesting practices, along with global warming, is that new viruses are creeping out of the jungle, trying to find an undisturbed home elsewhere. Or it could be that a human ate a gorilla that had eaten a bat or other creature that harbored the virus but didn’t die.

It took forty years for the Ebola virus, lingering in reservoirs, to make a new and more monumental entrance, letting loose on previously unexposed populations that have no resistance?

Is it that the environment has changed drastically? That we need to become better stewards of the land? Become more concerned with traditional foods and medicines? So many questions that need answering.

Whatever the case, this type of deadly transmission in which people have little protection is no different from the genocidal ability of the smallpox virus regarding the aboriginals in North America, and the Aztecs in Mexico (along with measles and influenza.) Unintentionally, these viruses were brought to the New World by Columbus and Cortés, but later were intentionally used to conquer these people, true genocide in action as with Lord Jeffrey Amherst infecting blankets with smallpox with the Native Americans/First Nation.

Surviving Influenza – Chapter One – Pathogens and Humans


Chapter One

Infectious Disease and Epidemics

It is said that infectious disease, caused by pathogens whether a virus, bacteria, protozoan, fungi or worms, has been the single most important factor in shaping human history. The most evident is its ability to cause epidemics or worldwide pandemics.

The three most deadly infectious epidemics were the Plague of Justinian in the 6th Century, 30 to 50 million lives lost in Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe; the Bubonic Plague or Black Death, in 14th Century Europe, again 50 million dead; and the pandemic of “Spanish” Flu of 1918-1919 with up to 50 million people dead, and half the world, another 50 million, sick from it.

Although differing strains, the first two plagues were caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, harbored by fleas on rats. Scientists believe that the first strain in the Byzantine Empire (the Plague of Justinian originated in Egypt and spread first to Constantinople before moving into Asia and Europe) was an evolutionary dead end. But currently viable strains of Yersinia pestis could elicit a new epidemic, or, due to air travel, a worldwide pandemic. The good news is that improved hygiene since 14th Century and antibiotics make this less of a probability.

There are many other examples of pathogens affecting us. In the Southwest US in 1993 a virus from the feces of mice spread through the Navajo nation causing sudden respiratory failure in healthy people. The shaman said this wasn’t new, that it happened during heavy rains and the pine nut harvest was plentiful. And then there’s Enterovirus D-68 and other gastric oriented viruses. This first exploded among vaccinated children in the summer of 2014.

What’s important to understand is that there have been 400 emerging, or new, infectious diseases since the beginning of World War 2, and that 60% of these are zoonotic, meaning they come from animals. This crossover isn’t new. For instance measles originated from the domestication of livestock a long long time ago. More recently we know the source for the Ebola virus is bats, HIV from monkeys and influenza from birds and pigs.

Sticking to influenza, the first swine flu, triangulated from a pig and bird to join a human gene, was the so-called “Spanish” Flu.” Unlike Ebola and other viral infections it is right at home in North America and Europe and doesn’t need an airplane to make an appearance. So unlike the overland trade routes in the 14th century that spread Black Death, a plague harboured by rats, or smallpox by ships centuries later this virus, responsible for the annual outbreak of “flu” lives among us. This is not a bacteria—with a known structure an antibiotic can kill—but an RNA virus that continually changes its structure, easily eluding any attempt at a match for a vaccines. Its RNA nucleic core cannot be stopped. The reality is this virus is a highly mutating pathogen; a virus that—especially when pigs and birds are involved—is exceedingly difficult to pin down and eradicate.

And that’s the danger we face.

A Little History

A few centuries ago, when no one had a clue what a virus or other pathogen was, what it could do or what it looked like the term spontaneous generation arose. This common belief held that life could arise from non-life or inorganic material. For example, people assumed that maggots simply appeared on rotting meat.

This idea was trashed in 1668 when the Italian physician Francesco Redi proved these maggots did not just spontaneously appear. They came, in fact, from flies that had laid tiny eggs on the rotting meat. The maggots were simply the intermediary or larval stage in the cycle of a fly.

This discovery occurred about the same time as the Dutch lens-maker Antonie van Leewenhoek (1632-1723) first visualization of microbes (a general term that covers all microscopic organisms, healthy or unhealthy) through a primitive microscope. He didn’t know exactly what he was looking at but as turned out it was a bacterium, not the much, much smaller entity of a virus.

But the game was on, if slowly, to discover the cause of people falling ill. Many theories crept in and it was well over a century later that Louis Pasteur (1822-95) in Paris and Robert Koch (1843-1910) in Berlin established germs as the cause of infectious diseases.

Pasteur too had dispelled the concept of “spontaneous generation,” by demonstrating the existence of airborne microscopic “germs” while Koch isolated the first bacterium, Bacillus anthracis.

Over time, and to make a longer story shorter there remained a group of infectious diseases that could not be isolated to a causative organism. These microbes were called “filterable agents” in light of the fact they were getting through the material the scientists used to trap bacteria and other pathogens. They decided these “filterable agents” must be extremely small but considered them, simply, tiny bacteria.

Then, in 1898, Martinus Beijerinck, a microbiology teacher at an agricultural school in Holland coined the word “virus.”

Building on Adolf Mayer’s work in Holland and later Dmitry Ivanovsky in Russia, Beijerinck repeated filter experiments (on plants, how it was normally done) and showed that the “filterable agent” they hoped to isolate grew in dividing cells and manifested its strength each time it infected a plant. He deemed the agent a living microbe and gave it the name “virus” from the Latin word for poison venom or slimy fluid.

But even by the early 1900s the nature of a virus remained a mystery, other than that it was infectious and needed living cells as a host to propagate.

In 1918, the virus that caused the so-called Spanish Flu that killed millions was still invisible.

It wasn’t until the 1930s when German engineer Max Knoll and physicist Ernst Ruska invented the electron microscope that viruses could finally be visualized. (By accelerating electrons, and relying on the reality of a corresponding wave of any given particle, these scientists, standing on the backs of many, defeated the limitation of what could be seen by visible light.)

Between 1935-1940 the American biochemist Wendell Stanley, working with the tobacco mosaic virus, proved that viruses contain protein. Then two English biochemists discovered viruses contain nucleic acids.

In 1953 through the work of James Watson and Francis Crick the genetic spiral of DNA and RNA was uncovered as the brains of any cellular operation, including viruses.

By 1964 molecular biologist Howard Temin proposed that some viruses use RNA, some DNA as their genetic information. Takes two years before this idea is acknowledged and accepted.

Approximately twenty years later the proteins of viruses were identified, leading to vaccines, including the yearly one for Influenza, and then, more recently, to anti-viral drugs.

It’s no wonder scientists were excited to finally put a face on a virus that had caused such suffering and death, and is one reason I believe that technological advances were given a pass. To feel helpless and be unable to offer anything concrete for so long made scientists search for ways to destroy the pathogens, ie unhealthy microbes, that seemed intent on killing humans.
No one could have foreseen antibiotic or anti-viral resistance or that these tiny things have a use in evolution and that we need to understand their role in a broader ecosystem.

Unfortunately through all these fabulous discoveries Big Pharma couldn’t let go of the profit margin. The pharmaceutical industry’s need to profit on human suffering has set society up with blinders to an overall, more holistic scheme of keeping us well. This clearly has added to the distrust of what we can do to co-exist, or stay well, or have a shorter recovery time when a virus infiltrates our bodies.

Continuing… in two weeks…