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Collision with the Virosphere

The world of December 2019 no longer exists. Our lives have been transformed in ways that we could not possibly have imagined. Many would argue, by the way, that the world of 2019 had become irrational, unkind and dysfunctional. Today, those same observers refer to that period-a mere six months ago-as a time of normality, or is the word “normalcy.”. Most of my life, I merely thought it was normal.

From 1914 until 1919, the world suffered through a Great War and a horrific multiyear influenza pandemic. During those years of difficulty, people yearned for a “normal” world, i.e., one that resembled that time before the war. In a 1920 presidential election campaign speech, Warren Harding coined a slogan: “Return to Normalcy.” A plea to return to the way things were before World War I and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1920.

Harding’s appeal was not surprising. Between the monumental suffering of WWI and the consequences of the 1918 Influenza pandemic that infected one-third of the world’s population, killing as many as 20-100 million people worldwide, including more than 600,000 Americans, most lives had been negatively impacted. Furthermore, substantial adverse economic effects resulted. Social distancing was strongly recommended at the time, as physicians were baffled by the disease.

Sound familiar? When can we “Return to Normalcy?”

COVID-19 is a vicious disease, whose natural course appears to be unlike anything that most of today’s physicians have ever before experienced. The virus that causes this illness was only named in January 2020 as SARS-CoV-2. Belonging to one of 6,828 currently named viral species, this particular virus is only one of hundreds of thousands more that are known and perhaps an unknown number waiting to be discovered. Recently, academics estimated that more than a quadrillion quadrillion (that’s a total of 10 with 31 zeros-whoa!!) viruses exist on earth. That is enough to assign one virus to every star in the universe 100 million times over. Doesn’t that boggle your mind? In recent years, scientists have discovered that the world of virus diversity-what is sometimes referred to as the virosphere- is unimaginably vast. Viruses infiltrate every aspect of our natural world, seething in seawater, drifting through the atmosphere and lurking in specks of soil. Generally considered non-living entities, viruses can only replicate with the help of a host-uninvited, of course-and these pathogens are capable of hijacking organisms form every branch of the tree of life, including a multitude of human cells.

Yet most of the time, humans manage to live in this virus-filled world (virosphere) relatively free of illness. The reason has less to do with the human body’s resilience to disease than the biological quirks of the viruses themselves. Viruses are extraordinarily picky about the cells they infect, and only an infinitesimally small fraction of the viruses that surround us actually pose any threats to humans.

Nonetheless, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic clearly demonstrates, outbreaks of new human viruses do happen, and they aren’t as unexpected as they might seem.

Indeed, humans have again collided with the virosphere. The past is well, the past. COVID-19 has accelerated change and brought the future to the present. As we gently and cautiously begin reopening the country, what will the current end game for COVID-l9 look like?

Any projections are purely speculative. Most likely the end game will be a mix of everything that checked past pandemics: continued social control measures to buy time, new antiviral medicines to ease symptoms, and a vaccine. This play will be 50% social/political and 50% science. Humans will survive and we will persevere. The collision with the virosphere and how humans respond will enact history. May we respond well.

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