Come with me on this journey, this very ancient journey.
To experience the age-old story of a very modern foe. This foe is invisible; it is neither living nor dead. You cannot smell it, and you cannot taste it. While it is not alive, it can become alive, with a flick of the right kind of switch. While it is not dead, it can masquerade as the dead, until the perfect moment. This is the journey of the 2019 novel coronavirus.
You’ve just launched on a perfect spacecraft. A craft able to shield you from all the forces out there that would seek to strike you down. A craft able to shrink down to the size of the smallest things in the universe. A craft able to keep you from intruders, and pass you through the gates of the human body unscathed. A craft with perfect vision, and the ability to travel across time, and space. You are now on that journey.
Our first journey brings us back before the age of people. Back to the age when life was flying around on wings, and there were no worries of the stock market, or the latest football game. Life was, quite simply, the struggle of beings, trying to make their mark on a planet where the only law was sink or swim. One would see no wars, no refugees, and no politics. But wait: A sound beckoned. A quick buzz, and a shape, which beckoned across the pond. This sound would be familiar to any boater, but its source would be much larger. It was a dragonfly with a two-foot wingspan. This critter wouldn’t have cared for you; it was on a mission to get lunch. But look closer and you would have found cells, the basic building blocks of that dragonfly. To gaze upon the millions of cells making up that dragonfly, would be the same as gazing upon the night lights of New York for the first time, and experiencing living bricks and mortar. All cells working together to keep the whole dragonfly alive. Fly far, even further still, into the dragonfly and you would have found a molecular war, every bit as violent as a full-scale war.
Those cells were fighting for survival; an intruder was on the loose. An intruder bent on destruction. That same intruder who was neither alive nor dead. This intruder had been studying the ways of its target and how to get past its defenses. Once upon a time, genetic material had gotten out of a cell that was older still. Perhaps, stretching back to a time when the Earth itself was young. This genetic information eventually gained some protection and struck out to make a life of its own. On the surface of the dragonfly, there were many doors that normally stayed locked until the correct key came along. Most of the time, the key-bearer would have been authorized. On this day, things would be different. On this day, evil had found its way into the system by stealing the keys.
The evil was transparent and was silent. It floated past, propelled only by fast-moving currents of air. It had been told of the doors which could be stuck open, and then, like a flash, the virus took over the cell’s internal machinery and took the hapless cell as its slave. The cells fought valiantly, but it was not to be. The dragonfly would be no more.
The battle between the viruses and cells would continue for millions of years, as we travel forward to the present time. Except, just like their human military counterparts, each side would be learning the tricks of the other side, in an effort to best the other, in the fight of their lives. We now travel to the humble bat, who, just like us can get cold viruses. Let’s now see what the virus has learned. It can now infect not just bats but can infect people. The virus has learned how to infect faster than any of its ancestors. The virus has learned how to evade the police of the body: the immune system. How has it accomplished this feat? Every few generations, the virus would change just a little bit. The viruses who changed and were eliminated by the immune system did not get to pass on their genes. The viruses who gained all these tricks earned their place on the wall of time. It is through this process that our foe, the novel coronavirus, would arise. This was a special kind of arms race: a biological arms race.
Coming back to 2019: Let’s now follow the novel coronavirus. Let us fly far back down, to the molecular level. Follow a particle of coronavirus as it flew around in the air. The particle itself would fly around silently, with the environment itself as its propulsion. Its shape would resemble a crown. While this coronavirus had learned many things from its ancestors, it had a new superpower: international travel. One unfortunate traveler, who started out with coughs and fever, would have been on the way home. Deep down within the lungs, our ship could zoom down to the level of the lung cells. Once at this level, the entire view would be filled with new and partially completed coronavirus particles. With the benefit of modern technology, the coronavirus would be able to move to its next target at hundreds of miles per hour. It would be able to do so silently and with enormous efficiency. Repeated in every corner of the world, the coronavirus would soon take over the world. It would take drastic action to put brakes on the silent enemy.
Frank Han is a cardiology fellow.
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