Viral buttknuckles

Slapping Rand Paul around would probably be a satisfying but useless endeavor.  You can’t beat stupid out of someone like him because I think he’s doing it on purpose.  Even if I were given the opportunity to try to calmly and patiently explain the biology behind the inane assertion that Chinese researchers created the COVID-19 coronavirus, it wouldn’t help.  Most congresspeople, regardless of party, were the kinds of college students who were willing to take a C in their required science courses just to get out of them.  Math and Science are poison to them.  Unfortunately for us, math = logic and biological sciences are based on the application of tested principles. There are several majors in college that are the refugia for the illogical and unprincipled, and very often they go into politics. Rand Paul should know better; he’s supposedly a doctor.

The COVID virus was not made by researchers or even modified by them.  This can be easily argued based solely on principles of evolutionary biology. I’ll start with an analogy.

Let’s take the national anthem of Russia.  I’m going to insert a couple of random words into it and step back and say, “There!  I improved it!”  No, let’s be real. I’m going to take the anthem, in Russian, which I do not speak or read.  Then, I’ll take the Cyrillic alphabet, which has some parallels with the English alphabet, and I’m going to add some letters to the anthem.  THEN, I’m going to step back and say, “There!  I improved it!”  Response? Not a chance in hell.  Random changes to an anthem, or a Shakespearean sonnet, or a great work of art does not improve it. Ever.

But viruses aren’t great works of art, you say?  You are so wrong. Nature does not produce perfection because perfection is an illusion. Nature does, however, produce complexity beyond human understanding. As researchers understand and describe genetic and biochemical processes more and more, it’s like listening to someone describe art. That such complexity and efficiency could arise by natural processes is difficult to comprehend.  And viruses are the simplest of productions because they aren’t even alive. And we still don’t understand them.

We’ve been studying the HIV genome for 38 years.  It has 9 genes that we understand pretty well. We’ve studied Influenza A extensively and we know a bit about coronaviruses. But in general, what we know about viral genetics is only from those we’ve studied, and in total it’s pretty bare.  So, we’re still figuring out how they infect, how they integrate into the host genome, how prions are assembled, and so on.  We’re stumbling along.  We know it’s basically mechanical, but absurdly complicated at the same time.

Along comes COVID-19. Nature has produced some 600 known coronaviruses and this is just one and almost certainly from a bat. The idea that we collected this virus and then subjected it to a modification scheme in the lab, even by those devilishly clever Chinese researchers, is absurd.  We barely speak the language.  We are linear thinkers.  We are in a plug-and-play mode in the lab.  But for some reason, buttknuckles like Rand Paul want to argue that we are capable of adding selected letters or words to Shakespeare and improving his sonnets. (Or that we paid the Chinese to beat us to it.)

But it could have been an accident, you say?  That’s even worse!  Adding not selected words, but random words to Shakespeare?  Viola!  A masterpiece made better! DaVinci look out!

And then what? China inoculated bats and sent them out to spread the virus? China allowed researchers to leave the lab and wander through the marketplace with their work clothes on?  The researchers were asymptomatic carriers who then spread the virus when they stopped to grab some produce at the market?  If the virus did escape the lab, it was by infected researchers, not because some clever humans have unlocked the secret code of virulence.

Oh, and if we added selected to words to Shakespeare, what words? As viral geneticists, we only know the meaning of a few words.  If we used those words to modify COVID-19, our fingerprints would be all over the resulting virus.  We would have used genes from other viruses because we have no clue, zero, zip, zilch, how to write a gene for improved viral function.  We would have to borrow one from a different virus and it would be immediately obvious. It would be analogous to my undergraduate students plagiarizing some scientific text, but changing a few words in hopes that I wouldn’t notice. They don’t know the difference between affect and effect, but they think I won’t notice when they use the phrase “transgenerational phenotypic plasticity” correctly and in context.

How can conspiracy theorists think scientists are the most brilliant (and evil) people on the planet, yet also believe that everything they say is just unproven “opinion?”  How do you argue with such a deep-seated lack of appreciation of what science is and the rules it operates by? How do you convince someone who is incapable of forming rational mental constructs that their argument on a subject they know nothing about is shit?  I’m open to suggestions. 


COVID was not a failure of the system; it was an inevitability.

The COVID pandemic was way overdue.  It’s amazing it took this long. That isn’t a reference to COVID specifically, but that COVID and other pandemics are expected and have been expected for many years. And then we got one.  Yay for accurate predictions!

            The COVID pandemic is analogous to wildfires in California (and now the rest of the western states).  The current situation was predicted by Harold Biswell in the 1950s and 60s, and the fire patterns in California were described by Richard Minnich in 1983.  That is, if we put out all of the small fires as they occur, we create the conditions for large fires that we can’t control.  Biswell predicted that dry, windy conditions with high fuel loads would create a situation that was beyond our capacity to control. He died shortly after the first fire to demonstrate his predictions: the Oakland Fire (or Tunnel Fire) of 1991.

            In modern medicine, we have worked assiduously to put out each and every viral and bacterial fire that comes along. We developed numerous vaccines since about 1900 and that stopped a great many diseases and saved countless lives, mostly among children.  We have deployed huge quantities of  many antibiotics since 1945 and ushered in the medical era wherein we can stop almost any pathogen we encounter.

            However, we keep coming across worrying signs that we still don’t really have control and, worse, we really don’t understand viruses and how they interact with a world populated with nearly 8 billion people.  Perhaps the biggest red flag was HIV in 1980.  One of the great outcomes of HIV is that we are now a thousand times more knowledgeable about white blood cells than before HIV.  We understand how the body is reacting to the virus and how the virus is using our own cells against us. We have learned a huge number of amazing things about ourselves. We also haven’t solved HIV or developed a vaccine after 40 years.

            SARS (2002-2003) was another wake-up call. Like HIV, the spread of these new viruses can seem almost instantaneous because an infected individual can travel from one side of the globe to another in a day, can interact with hundreds of people on the way, and may be asymptomatic the entire time.  In contrast to HIV, SARS was highly communicable and we stopped its spread because of remarkably fast actions.  SARS has an Ro of ~1 (capable of producing an epidemic), but COVID-19 may be as high as 6. 

            However, what exactly have we learned from these earlier experiences?  As a culture, I would say next to nothing.  This pandemic has clearly demonstrated that most of us are in disease denial and governments are almost helpless to do anything about that. And a virus with Ro of >1 is very hard to stop and one with asymptomatic spread is essentially impossible to stop.

            Today we have almost 8 billion people living in crowded cities. In America, the urban population is more than 250 million (75%). In China, that number is 900 million; in both India and Europe, it’s 500 million. The WHO estimates almost 4 billion people live in urban and suburban areas.  Why are we surprised at disease outbreaks?

            There are about 90 cities in the world with 5 million or more inhabitants.  All of the factors that govern epidemic spread are met and exceeded in these places.  Large cities have many places for mass gatherings including sports, culture, recreation, marketplaces, and seasonal events. And the cities all have airports that connect them within hours of the entire world.  The potential for superspreader events exists daily.

            International travel is available to almost the entire population of the planet.  We do not screen for disease. We do not have a strict health declaration policy.  We did not require ppe in airports or on planes until COVID. We do not have the capacity for filtering air around individuals on planes.  We do not have the capacity for enforcing personal distance under normal conditions.  We live in a world that pretends disease is the exception, not the rule, and as a consequence have created the perfect conditions for epidemic spread.  And yet, although we know this, we seem to be surprised.

            Individually, prior to COVID, few people sneezed into their elbow, wore face masks, stayed home for a slight fever, paid much attention to a cough.  We worked and played even when we knew we might be fighting off some minor disease.  We were “troopers” and “warriors” and we were complemented for being tough and stoic.  It showed “leadership” and a “can-do attitude.”  And most of us can’t wait to get back to a situation where all of that is true again. 

            The fact that we have not had devastating pandemics within the lifetime of anyone currently living is a testament to medical technology and the watchfulness of government and private entities, such as WHO and the CDC.  Their failure in the case of the COVID pandemic is not a failure of the system, it is an inevitable result of population growth and concentration.  It reflects the human effect on the environment, it reflects how our food is produced, and it is an outcome of the unrelenting pressure we have put on the resource base that supports us.

            And unfortunately, it is also a demonstration of the predictions made by Garrett Hardin in 1968 (The Tragedy of the Commons) about what happens to commonly owned spaces and resources when we fail to enact protections against human selfishness.  Unfortunately, western societies are about to find out the hard way that social restrictions are either going to be a way of life for us going forward… or else, we can continue to ignore natural laws and fall prey to natural selection for stupidity.  The latter choice is the path chosen by anti-vaxxers who live by the highly respected tenet that one should die in defense of one’s philosophy. Even if it’s the philosophy of ignorance.

The Microbiome Owner’s Manual – the last chapter from my new book

34. Epilogue: A World View Based on Quality

French winemakers understand the microbial world. They understand inherent complexity, particularly in the interactions between the grape vines and the land on which they grow. The results of those interactions are the grapes.  French winemakers have given us a word for how the environment shapes the qualities of the grapes: terrior (pronounced ter-war).

Terrior is the influence of the thousands of different elements in the local environment on the organisms growing in that environment. The grapes are the vine’s expression of its genotype living in that environment and the winemaker’s job is to make wines that express the potential of the grapes.

The quality of the wine cannot be manufactured. Winemaking is a slow process of coaxing the terrior out of the grapes and that terrior is expressed in the flavors and aromas of the countryside that became part of the grapes themselves. The grapevines live in that environment; they collaborate with and tolerate all of the plants and animals, they experience the seasons, they cycle with the soils, and the grapes produced each year reflect that life and that journey. With the environment, the grape is the expression of potential; without the environment, the grape is just a fruit.

Our health is also a product of our ecosystem and in much the same way. In a very real sense, our complex omnivore digestive system is our superpower. Because we are omnivores, we can sample nearly everything in the environment. In some ways, nothing is really off limits because the microbiome we carry with us provides the capacity for testing almost every plant for its potential as food. But we at risk of losing that superpower and we must work consciously and assiduously to maintain it. We must collaborate with our microbiome such that we allow it to express its potential relative to our human physiology. This mutualistic relationship is a slow dance, one that must be practiced and studied, and it does not happen overnight.

Terrior carries with it additional nuances. In vineyards, the terrior is derived from the soil type, the microbes in the soil, the slope and exposure of the hillside, and the seasonal changes affecting those factors. The plants, animals, and microbes interact with the soil and produce what ecologists call “legacy effects”. That is, lasting effects of the presence of those organisms even after they are gone. Thus, a soil that is damaged and depleted of microbes cannot provide the same complexity to the grapes as a stable, healthy, diverse soil. In other words, the quality of the grapes produced in a region depends on the health of the other organisms in that region and the vines are not at their best unless the surrounding environment is intact and healthy.

And so it is with the expression of human potential, our “tomato-ness”. Each of us relates to the environment in different ways. Each of us has our own particular microbiome, whether on the skin, in the mouth, or in the colon. Each of us has our personal history and that determines how we react to stress. As a consequence, each of us will react differently as we each experience the same environmental stress. This is important.

The ability to react and the intensity of the reaction is modified by our prior experience. Our makeup, our capacity, is a function of the quality of the environment we have been living in. The more diverse and challenging the environment we have lived in previously, the more capable we are of handling new stressors now. Our external environment has given us that capacity by eliciting it from us. Every challenge we faced and overcame in the past has helped to condition and develop our ability to handle future challenges.

If our environment is impoverished, we will be impoverished. We will be handicapped in our ability to respond or to resist or to bounce back. We will be like greenhouse tomatoes lacking the qualities and characteristics that are inherent in our genetic makeup or in the makeup of our healthy microbiome. We will be like germ-free mice lacking a defense system that is absolutely a natural condition in a healthy being. And it is important to recognize that we depend on the internal ecosystem for our daily health, but also on the external ecosystem for the stimuli that bring out our best and for the flow of information that maintains our internal ecosystem. Our microbiome is nested within us and we are nested within the ecosystem that surrounds us.

We know next to nothing about the details of the interactions between the human body and the microbiome and the infinite number of cascading effects those interactions likely influence. But claiming a lack of knowledge is not an excuse for a lack of action. Nobody has complete knowledge and in the case of the microbiome, nobody has much of anything (despite what they might advertise to the contrary). We don’t understand prebiotics, we don’t understand probiotics, we don’t understand how our chemical world is affecting us internally. And that won’t change much in the near future (despite what you might see in advertisements.). Our ignorance of the specifics matters, but it also doesn’t matter.

If we understand that 30 trillion bacteria with 5 million genes in our internal ecosystem are working on our behalf by helping to maintain a healthy host, and that we can help them by modifying our eating habits and by avoiding unnecessary anti-microbial dangers, then we have some degree of control over our own health.

If we recognize what a healthy external environment looks like, we have some measure of control over our own health. And we can take steps to improve one to improve the other.

Ultimately, given the road we are on with 8 billion people, mass-produced food, and life in megacities, we have little choice unless we are resigning ourselves to a shortened life of poor health. To me, the choice is easy and the changes we can make in our lives are pretty easy too. And it is no more of a chore than shopping with my eyes open and paying attention.

Buy organic, buy natural, buy from local growers, shop the farmer’s market, make food connections, create food co-ops, encourage local restaurants, read the labels, use your money to make change, and use your voice to find other voices. Those who claim that high-quality foods are niche, or too expensive to make, or can’t possibly feed the world, or aren’t better for you are actually the Pollyannas of the world. They truly believe that life is great and all is well. Food is cheap, food is flavorful, and food is good for you. Technology has and will continue to provide the answers. This is not about saying they’re wrong. It’s about recognizing that we are not alone and we have been ignoring our partners.

(This summarizes a number of the main topics from the book which is really about how to understand personal health by understanding the basis of that health: the microbiome and the food we eat that supports it. Please check it out.)

Viral Basics on a Slow Friday. (written for Schloss Rudolfshausen [Germany] blogpost in March 2020)

The outbreak of the new coronavirus and COVID-19 has brought a diversity of opinions regarding the severity and seriousness of infection.  Although I am not an expert on infectious disease, as an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, I can offer a viewpoint from a different angle.  I have concerns about people who do not seem to be taking this virus and disease seriously and view it as not particularly more dangerous than the common cold or the flu.  This is not a correct way to think about COVID-19. 

*It is impossible to fight something we do not understand.  If we do not understand the epidemiology of this coronavirus, we are more or less helpless until we know more.  We can’t predict the number of cases, incubation periods, how long it will persist, the number of deaths, the exact health conditions that predict mortality, whether or not the virus will become resident or transient, how fast it will mutate, or whether it may start affecting other age groups and susceptibility categories.  We are ignorant and that is extremely dangerous.  The smartest thing we can do in our ignorance is to be very careful.

*It is not just another flu or cold. First, there are several flus and colds and not just one, and they vary in their intensity.  Influenza A has many variants and there are many rhinoviruses that are the primary source of the common cold.  Second, Influenza A is responsible for several hundred thousand deaths worldwide each year, and the death rate of COVID-19 is at least ten times higher. Third, the death rate for those people who are sickened enough by COVID-19 to be hospitalized is many times higher than that.  The severity of this disease has been understated and this is an incredibly dangerous thing to do.  We won’t know the true mortality statistics for this virus until a sufficiently large number of people have had the opportunity to recover and that recovery period is going to last weeks.  Until disease experts have greater knowledge of the disease progression, we should be overly careful.

*The risks of viral infections are magnified when they are serious enough to require hospitalization.  A body weakened by a viral infection is susceptible to secondary infection and that infection in a hospital setting is very likely to be pneumonia.  This is one of the primary risks for the elderly (and infants) who require hospitalization.  In the case of COVID-19, patients with respiration conditions will almost certainly require the use of a ventilator and the pneumococcus bacterium is a frequent resident of hospital ventilators.  In the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the cause of death on most death certificates (in the US) was pneumonia with influenza as a contributory cause.  Anyone risking a secondary infection by being careless about a primary infection is showing a dangerous lack of appreciation of infectious disease.

*In the 75 years since the widespread availability of antibiotics in 1945, the public has slowly lost the collective memory of what life was like before modern medicine.  Before vaccines were introduced in the early 1900s, 1 of every 4 infants died by age two and 1 of every 4 young adults died of tuberculosis, typhoid, and other infectious diseases. Death by infectious disease was a threat to every age group because there was no way to stop the simplest of infections.  However, in the modern age of antibiotics and vaccines, we have lost our fear because we are quite sure technology will come to the rescue.  But technology is based on information and in the case of COVID-19 we have very little information and the rescue will take time.  Being incautious with unknown pathogens is a step back into a deadly past.

*It is an incredibly naïve thing to say that if I don’t have any pre-existing health conditions, I shouldn’t worry about avoiding this virus.  While that may be true to the best of your knowledge, the fastest way to find out if an organism has an adaptation for survival is to subject it to a lethal stress.  The fastest way to find out if you have no pre-existing conditions is to contract the disease and wait to see if you survive.  If you don’t, you were wrong.  No matter your age, your medical history, your family history, or how great you feel today, a virus will demonstrate very quickly whether you have an undiscovered weakness. The disease experts are not yet sure of the full range of indicators for COVID-19 and until they are, the only realistic policy is caution.

19. Plant toxins are everywhere…and we should eat them

A while back, my neighbor asked me about a plant that he learned (on the internet) was toxic and he wanted to know if he should pull it out of his garden to protect his grand-daughter and her friends.  It was an Amaryllis.  I said that many plants in the lily family are toxic, but mostly the bulbs.  And the girls were not likely to see his plant as food and they aren’t very toxic to humans anyway. I wasn’t concerned. He pulled it out anyway.

I did not tell my neighbor that all plants produce toxins. There was no way I was throwing gas on that fire.  I don’t mean most plants, mind you; ALL plants are toxic.  A pound of fresh basil is toxic, a cup of fresh rosemary is toxic, cabbage is toxic, and hot peppers are toxic.  Apple seeds are very toxic and coffee beans have one of the most toxic substances known.  If you eat enough of any plant, your body will experience some difficulties with the toxins in the plant, and your digestive system will let you know.  Try eating leaves from a walnut tree.  The smells and tastes in plants are warnings of toxicity. 

And that’s why we eat them.  Not only that, we often crave them.  We dry them and grind them and sprinkle them on our food, especially on meats.  Plant chemicals keep us healthy.  I’ll take a second cup of those coffee beans, please.

There is nothing particularly healthy about meats.  It’s protein, sure, with a large dose of animal fat.  Plants add a variety of flavors and we associate the flavors with the meat, but we never think about the underlying need for the plant chemicals when we’re eating our meats.  Meats typically have little inherent flavor outside of burnt fats.  Those meats that do have subtle flavors, such as free-range meats, are the result of an exposure to a range of plants in the animal’s diet.  It’s the plants, not the meat.

We don’t get that.  With cheap corn-fed, factory-farmed, industrially-flavored supermarket meats surrounding us, anyone under the age of about 40 has never really experienced anything else.  Nor have the people who produce the meats.  And we are increasingly poorer and sicker because of it.

We need the healing power of those plant toxins.  We need weak toxins to stimulate our systems, we need environmental challenges, we need to stimulate the microbiome.  We need stop eating watered down, genetically uniform, commercially grown, immature food plants.  Plants are biological systems and they produce more and more chemicals as they age.  When we eat baby spinach, we are getting all of the experience those week-old leaves possess….and it isn’t much. 

We need to eat plants with character, with a history of fighting for life, with stories to tell about their misadventures with insects and pathogens.  We need to eat plants that can and have survived the outside world.  We need to stop eating plants that have never seen the outside of a greenhouse.

We also need to stop eating (or drinking) supplements and start consuming the real thing.  The plant is a consortium of defensive chemicals that have evolved over millions of years to protect the plant from a hungry world.  The components of that chemical cocktail do not work in isolation and we have no experience with them in that way.  Isolated chemicals are drugs.  They can be described as “medicine”, but they are still toxic, purified, potentially addictive, and act to replace physiological functions rather than to strengthen them. 

When we eat mature plants, we get very small doses of many different chemicals and those small doses stimulate out physiology in different ways.  They can be anaesthetics, analgesics, stimulants, depressants, disruptors, or enhancers.  The results of eating mature plants are incremental and slow, but the result is a stronger, more prepared, and more experienced body.  The result is a human physiology that is informed and ready in a holistic sense.  Plants are slow medicine.

The loss of nutritional quality in modern plants is well recognized.  Sometimes its intentional, such as reducing harsh flavors to make the plants more palatable.  Other nutrients are lost as genetic variation is eliminated in crop plants.  Sometimes, it’s just because we grow plants too fast.  Regardless, we are starved for the slow medicines and it’s showing.  We are sicker, we aren’t resistant or resilient, we are not recovering, we are more susceptible, we are dying.

We are primates.  We eat plants.  We have a colon that is constructed specifically for managing a large quantity of plant material by using bacteria to extract very important chemicals.  This is our evolutionary history and we cannot override that with food technology that ignores biological realities.  There is a second pandemic going on right now; it’s slow and creeping, but growing in speed.  It is the unintentional consequence of intentional actions that result in the starvation of our species by the continuous “improvement” of a nutritionally depauperate food system.  We need to change that very soon.

Viral Basics

In the movie Predator, the Good Guys encounter an Enemy about which they know nothing, except that it becomes readily apparent that the rules of the game are simple: kill or be killed. The enemy is strong, powerful, deadly, invisible, silent, ruthless.  The Good Guys have to redirect their behavior, adapt their tactics, and try to understand their opponent in the sense that they have to find a weakness.  Normally a collaborative approach would be the strongest tactic, but Hollywood action movies rarely have enough head space for more than one star.  The A list star solves all of the problems and the B list stars help by sacrificing themselves to a good cause.  Fighting an unknown enemy is fine if one has strong weapons at one’s disposal.  Fighting without weapons is much harder.

COVID-19 is a novel enemy, but it’s an insidious predator, and unlike the one Arnold Schwarzenegger had to fight.  A virus is on a reconnaissance mission to find weak spots.  It isn’t alive, it isn’t hunting for prey; it is making biochemical connections that indicate a doorway into a cell’s internal resources.  The virus exploits those opportunities and your immune system has the job of stopping that exploitation.  A novel virus has the advantage, however, because the immune system has no point of reference and no previous history for stopping the virus.  And until the immune system is educated on what to look for and attack, there is no stopping a novel virus other than the overall health of the body.

Viruses are like a spy that has found out all there is to know about your personal medical history.  It investigates what diseases you had as a child, your traumatic injuries, hospitalizations, current issues, recent diseases, chronic conditions, and all of your past and present bad habits.  This information is your health context.  The virus is able to find entry points into your system based on the weaknesses you have accumulated over your lifetime.  If there are a number of weaknesses, the virus may seem to be attacking from a number of directions and gaining a foothold will be much easier.  If there are few weaknesses or a robust health context, the virus may still find entry, but fail to gain a dominant position in the system, and the system will fight back successfully. 

Humans have a very strong constitution; our immune systems have been battle tested for thousands of years.  Each of us carries an immunological legacy from the survivors of the battles.  We have been given the tools to survive and those tools are honed further by personal experience.  Our immune systems have been educated by every disease and vaccine we have experienced.  And our hope is that a strong immune system will be able to respond in the face of novel enemies.  Unfortunately, the modern lifestyle is one that tends to weaken our defenses and novel viruses exploit those weaknesses.

Some weakening of our defenses is inevitable.  Of course, we are weakened with age, and age in combination with other traumas will compound the effects.  More importantly, what we have done in our younger years may be more important than age alone.  It’s becoming more apparent that some of the “traumas” to our defenses are as simple as inappropriate use of antibiotics, especially in children for whom antibiotics are often a regular part of life. Few adults routinely use antibiotics, but worried parents will reach for any effective solution when their child is sick.

Let’s be clear though, viruses and bacteria are not the same thing, not are antibiotics and vaccines.  Bacteria are alive; viruses are not.  Vaccines strengthen the immune system against both viruses and bacteria by educating it; antibiotics replace the immune system temporarily and only for bacterial infections until it can regain its previous effectiveness.  Antibiotics do not strengthen our immune systems.

Thus, we should be very wary of using drugs that interfere with and may damage normal functions.  We should also be very aware of the kinds of daily activities that can impair the function of our immune system.  Primary among activities that boost our immunity is the kind and quality of food we eat.  We need weapons to fight novel enemies and our first line of defense will be what we’re made of.

Viral thoughts: The value of an opinion, imo.

In other words: If opinions are equal, then my ignorance is equal to anyone’s expertise.

Someone told me during an argument about COVID’s reality that everyone’s opinion is valid. I’m going to have to disagree with that.  Not only is that not even remotely true, but the person speaking didn’t believe it for a minute.  It’s just that she did not agree with my opinion and the fact that I believe the death toll isn’t exaggerated; I believe it’s grossly under-reported.  The difference in our opinions was this: I read as widely as I can on the pandemic, but I focus on reputable sources.  She relied on right-wing political commentary and the single fact that she once saw a report in her hospital that a person who died in a car accident was listed as a COVID death. That single incident told her that hospitals are adding names to the COVID list that don’t belong there, increasing the totals, and bringing additional money into the hospital because the government is compensating for COVID deaths.

So, I was trying to rely on that facts that have been published by the CDC, US Gov’t, NY Times, WHO, and other independent reporting agencies.  She was doing something else. 

Here’s my point about opinions though.  Let’s say I work in a hospital and manage a particular section.  A new worker is filling out the forms improperly and I approach them and say so.  They reply that this is the way it was done in the other hospital and this was acceptable there.  I say, well it isn’t acceptable here, so do it our way.  The reply is that acceptable should be the same across hospitals and therefore my opinion does not outweigh their opinion.  My reply to this “equality of opinion” argument is: change it to our way or expect to be fired.

If a student comes up to me and argues that the answer given on a test question is logically correct and I incorrectly marked it wrong, we will have a discussion about correct answers.  If they argue that MY correct answer is rooted in theory and cannot be proven correct, and therefore THEIR answer is equally accurate, we will have further discussion about correct answers.  Arguing from a hypothesis is not remotely the same as arguing from theory and established principles.  And I can give many examples to show that no one truly believes the contrary.

The world is not driven by each of us figuring out what’s correct based on personal experiences.  Progress is the process of taking existing information and using it to either arrive at new conclusions or, even better, to use that information to develop testable hypotheses and new experiments.  We stand on the shoulders of others.  Going on gut feelings is a remarkably flawed approach.  I may have an opinion, but without testing, it is only worth the imaginary paper it’s written on.

I have a problem with people who argue positions based on no research whatsoever and would rather lazily juggle second-hand information in their big fat brain. Bigger is not better, you know, as the obesity pandemic is demonstrating.  Get some facts, present the facts, identify your sources (and not someone on TV who also failed to support their argument and probably high school science), and let’s compare information.  That’s called a conversation, but it’s a process that can actually lead to greater understanding.

Viral thoughts: Why don’t viruses like Covid just go away?

So, eventually everyone will be vaccinated, or will survive COVID-19, or will be dead, and then things will be back to normal, right?  That’s doubtful.  It’s amazing to me that we got to 2020 without a serious pandemic like COVID.  Given the local densities of the 8 billion people on this planet, this pandemic was long overdue.  The crowding together of all the humans on this planet into very tight places has screamed for epidemic outbreaks.  And there have been MANY epidemics before COVID.  But now, there are about 35 megacities (>10 million people), and the numbers are growing rapidly as we continue to relocate to urbanized areas, and these giant cities are where every new pandemic will begin. 

It’s worth noting that the viruses won’t originate in the cities though.  That’s just where they will find the perfect opportunity for spread and they will spread rapidly once they arrive.  And as the cites get larger and denser, they will spread faster than we can possibly control them.  For COVID, China acted quickly by placing an entire large city under lock-down quarantine and they were able to contain the virus.  But COVD is not very infectious and I suspect they were very lucky this time. China is the ideal location for new viruses given the human densities in rapidly growing megacities, but that still have very close ties to traditional food sources and food production practices.

The prospect of novel and highly contagious viruses is one of the main worries at the CDC and WHO and other international health agencies. Human history is rife with epidemics and pandemics dating back to at least 500 BCE.  The prospect of a new unstoppable pathogen becomes almost inevitable given the conditions that now exist that favor highly virulent and infectious pathogens.

            A few years back there was concern about bird flu in southeast Asia.  The mortality rate was >60%, but all transmission was from ducks and chickens and no transmission had occurred from human to human.  As long as the human link was missing, it was a watch and wait situation.  Ebola was and is very serious, but fortunately containment is the best answer and it works.  However, if ebola escapes to a big city, especially one with an international airport, that picture will change. And then there’s zika, dengue, and measles currently making the rounds.

            However, we’re thinking about life after COVID-19 in the US.  It’s about gone, right?  Nope.  Not going to happen.  The Spanish Flu of 1918 was the H1N1 variant and it has returned with somewhat less ferocity in 1977 (Russian Flu, 1 million dead) and in 2009 (Swine Flu, 300,000 dead).  While it appears to come back weaker each time, part of the lower death toll is the advancements of medical technology and the speed of response.  The Cholera epidemic has returned 6 times in history and it’s an ever-present danger after natural disasters that affect drinking water. Bubonic Plague has never really gone away.  After 40 years, the HIV pandemic is ongoing with no vaccine in sight.

            So, what can we expect?  Humans have a number of resident diseases and a number of recurring diseases that we have to be constantly on the lookout for. Measles, whooping cough, chicken pox, tuberculosis, polio, and diptheria to name just a few.  Fortunately, these have been under control for 50-100 years due to vaccines and antibiotics.  Nonetheless, “resident” means they are with us and we can’t get rid of them, and there are several reasons why.

            First, there are carriers.  Some people can be infected without showing symptoms and yet they can spread the disease.  Second, we don’t always know where they hide.  The cold virus hides in our nose and sinuses; it’s always there.  The flu virus strains hide in pigs and chickens and other birds and emerges with new vigor every few years.  COVID will do the same.  In fact, during the lulls this past year, we have no idea what it was doing, but it was present and spreading.

            Here is a prediction about COVID-19.  First, we will see weaker strains in the sense that they might still be lethal, but the time to death will be slower and that will give hospitals more time to deal with it.  As more and more people become immune to the current strains, it means the stronger ones will fail to be transmitted to new hosts and they will die with their current host.  That will leave only the weaker strains that do not kill the host as quickly.  This, by the way, is why quarantines are so important; they allow the hosts to recover or die before passing on the stronger strains.  Herd immunity basically means there are few susceptible people moving around and they rarely encounter each other while also being infectious.  Thus, the epidemic stops.  But that doesn’t mean the virus is eliminated.

             COVID and other viruses are always mutating and that results in new and different strains that vary in their infectiousness and their virulence.  The second thing we will see is more highly infectious strains which are less lethal.  If this happens, COVID will become a new “flu” in the sense that as new strains emerge, we will have waves of outbreaks, which we will begin to refer to as “COVID season” just as we do with “flu season”.  And vaccinations will become a standard protection procedure for the most at-risk people.

            We just had a spectacularly successful flu season thanks to COVID.  By wearing masks and following other protocols to reduce transmission, we not only beat COVID, but the flu as well.  Guess what?  We should have been doing this with every flu season.  Oh wait, that’s exactly what they do in hospitals to reduce flu exposure.

18. Will human longevity continue to increase?

I predict NO……once the pre-WWII babies are all gone.    

A little background.  I’ve seen a number of recent articles about human longevity, and the rapidly growing number of centenarians alive, and some extrapolations from the recent trends.  The number of US centenarians is about 90,000 and is expected to pass 500,000 in about 30 years.  Globally, there are about 500,000 today and will reach perhaps 3.5 million in 30 years.  These projections are based not so much on the increasing longevity of humans, but on our ability to prevent “early” death which causes people to live longer.  The actual maximum longevity of humans is still hovering around 110-115 but only a very small number of people make it that far.  However, here is a huge difference between the number of people who live to the maximum longevity and an actual change in expectancy.

In 1900, the life expectancy of Americans was about 46-48 and rose slowly over the next couple of decades until 1945.  The end of WWII was a tipping point for longevity; we gained control over bacterial infections with penicillin and medical technology experienced major advances.  Over the next 20-25 years human life expectancy hit ~80 years, our ability to slow and control the debilitating aspects of aging underwent a quantum leap forward.  However, that number has not changed since.  What has changed is that mortality due to infectious disease, especially for infants and the elderly, diminished tremendously.  Since 1945, we die of heart disease, strokes, cancers, and diseases related to cardiovascular issues, but we are now able to stave off death which means more people make it to the magical age of 100. So, although expectancy is increasing, longevity is not.

So, why do I think that longevity is not going to increase? 

First, I think the both expectancy and loingevity for humans may decrease relatively soon.  And I predict this will happen as the number of people born before 1945 decreases.  The youngest of that group turn 76 this year. 

Second, I may be wrong because of tremendous intervention by medical technology. However, technology keeps us alive not by increasing longevity, but by preventing death and I argue this is not the same thing.

As to the first point, I will be posting extensively about the human microbiome including what it is, what it does, and how to keep it healthy and working for you.  To be brief, the human microbiome is the collection of bacteria in our colon (primarily) and it has an incredibly complex relationship with our immune, nervous, circulatory, and digestive systems.  It is an integral and essential part of our long-term health.  And since 1945, we have been killing it without regard for any short or long-term consequences.  We’ve done this in different ways, but mainly via antibiotics.  As an analogy, we came to a fist fight with a machine gun.

The babies born after 1945 were born into a world of antibiotics in which even the possibility of bacterial infection is met with overwhelming lethal force.  For an earache in infants, we douse the entire body with a broad-spectrum antibiotic. For a simple infection on our foot, we take antibiotics for 7 days through our mouth.   We will kill all bacteria to eliminate a single kind.  Bacteria are bad and our mission since 1945 has been to sterilize.

We are now finding that we need the 1000-1500 species of bacteria in our colon.  We need them every day, we need to feed them good food, we need to let them do their work on our behalf.  The more times we hammer them with antibiotics and the less diverse they are, the less work they can do on our behalf, and the more we open ourselves up to pathogenic behavior by some of the species.  It is estimated that a 20-year-old today has been subjected to 17 courses of antibiotics in their short life, with many of those courses before the age of two, which is when very important physical, physiological, neurological development was taking place.

These consequences are correlated with a long list of emerging “epidemics” such as obesity, allergies, diabetes, autism, and auto-immune diseases.  These diseases all have the appearance of the body turning on itself or of the body behaving in an unnatural way.  It will take decades to unravel how these diseases develop, the relationship with the microbiome, the interactions with the toxic world we live in, and effects of the disastrously low-quality diet the western world subsists on. 

I predict that the emergence of Modern Medicine and antibiotics after 1945 will be reflected in a decline in average longevity and life expectancy in humans because of a decline in human vitality stemming from childhood.  This will be based on a decline in the ability of the human body to mend itself.  I predict that an important underlying contributor is the damage we have wrought on the microbiome.  We are all damaged.  But there are ways to alleviate the damage and I am going to suggest (in upcoming blogs) that it begins with microbiome health and that we have the understanding we need to begin today.

Viral thoughts for Monday

My workplace has decided to keep an indoor mask mandate in place until September despite the city council deciding to rescind the city-wide mask mandate.  So, I think I will not be going to my office this summer.  Do I oppose the mandate?  No, masks kept literally thousands of people in this city from getting sick all at the same time.  But a mask is not necessary for me or anyone else at this point. 

I’ve been fully vaccinated.  I can’t get the virus, I can’t give the virus; I am neutral.  Everyone I work with has either been vaccinated or has decided not to go that route.  If they are vaccinated, they can neither give nor get the virus. If they aren’t vaccinated, they had ample opportunity to do so and have intentionally decided to take their chances, most likely because of erroneous information concerning side effects…. or out of sheer stupidity. 

The decision by my workplace is intended to protect people from the spread of the disease, but we are either neutral and unable to spread it or we have declared that we are willing to take our chances. Either way, I’m offended that I would be forced to change my behavior when I have done the right thing, the danger is past, and the only ones at risk are choosing to be.  So, I won’t play because I have no desire to protect idiots against themselves.

Perhaps I sound petulant or boorish, but…….

Let’s be clear about this or ANY virus.  If it’s a NOVEL virus, and COVID-19 is novel and we knew it was novel from the start, there are only two ways to reach immunity: wait for a vaccine or get sick.  That’s it. For novel viruses, EVERYONE on the planet is susceptible, everyone will get it sooner or later.  Vaccines are the only way to avoid the disease.  If you don’t get vaccinated, you WILL get the disease.

I’m a very healthy person; I haven’t been sick in bed since 1988 when I caught something while teaching high school. I believe I would have no problems with COVID because I don’t think I have any underlying undiscovered health issues.  You are welcome to believe that as well and apparently a lot of people in the world do believe that.  You might be right, but what if you’re wrong? 

Here’s what happens.  The fastest and most effective way to learn of any undiscovered health issues is simple and cheap: get yourself a virus.  Preferably a NOVEL virus because you will have no way to stop its progress once you get infected. Such a virus will run a full scan of your system; it will look for and find your weak points.  For COVID-19, it will report back to you in about four days with a diagnostic analysis and present you with some choices that include: asymptomatic (you’re safe), stay at home (deal with it), go to the hospital (you’re in trouble), or contact all of your relatives and make end-of-life arrangements. 

However, regardless of the diagnosis, the virus will stay with you for at least 10-14 days.  Why not kill you immediately?  Because the virus buys time for you to visit with friends and family and to offer each of them a free diagnostic check-up too.  The 10-14 day window of infectiousness more or less guarantees that others will be able to take advantage of the free offer.

But wait a minute, what if I don’t get the virus.  Oh, but you will because there is no immunity to it.  But what if I have natural immunity?  Oh, really?  How does that work?  It requires a mutation such that the virus is unable to infect cells in your body.  Are you that person?  No, you are not.  You will get the virus.  And the younger you are, the better, and so getting it sooner is better than getting it later.  By the way, mutations are random and a random mutation that happens to impart immunity to a never-before-seen virus is pretty close to not possible.

So, you of the non-vaccinated (and probably not masked), you’re getting this virus.  You’ll receive one free viral diagnostic screen to detect any underlying physiological weaknesses.  And then you’ll go from there.  Whatever reason you have for not getting the vaccine now, although basically it’s just fear of the unknown, you will soon join the ranks of either the immune or the dead.  It sounds like the ultimate adventure, not unlike spinning the Roulette Wheel and putting every cent you own on black.

So, back to my original point.  I’m done wearing a mask for people who refuse to get vaccinated.  If you didn’t get jabbed yet, you probably aren’t going to, and I’m not going to spend the next several months in a meaningless exercise to somehow prevent you from getting infected.  Anyway, you are going to get COVID and you’re likely going to get it from one of the others in your social circle.  You eventually will be part of a little community of sick and dying vax-resisters, but please keep it to yourself.