A new harmful mutated virus
So far there have been more than 67,000 cases and over 1,530 deaths from the new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which is a 2% fatality rate. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus a global emergency that threatened to be potentially worse than terrorism. Previously swine flu and Ebola were declared public heath emergencies. Infection and immunity laboratories are in a worldwide race to develop a vaccine against the new coronavirus. But the first vaccine targeting the new coronavirus could be 18 months away.
The cities of Wuhan (11 million people), Huanggang (7 million people), and Ezhou (1 million people) in China are in lock-down. And the Chinese Government has ordered workers to stay at home and shut ports as part of a range of measures to control the spread of the virus.
The cruise company Royal Caribbean has barred all guests holding Chinese, Hong Kong or Macau passports from boarding its ships. Thousands of passengers on cruise ships have been placed under quarantine. And airport authorities are using thermal sensors to check whether incoming passengers are unwell.
To date, 72 countries have implemented travel restrictions. The Australian Government advises “do not travel to China” because of uncertainty around the transmission and virulence of the coronavirus in China. And Australia requires 14 days isolation for those who have visited China or who have been in close contact with a confirmed case of the new coronavirus.
Indonesia has barred entry to all visitors who have been in China in the past 14 days and cancelled all flights between the two countries, as well as suspended food and beverage imports from China.
This coronavirus is a major threat because of the high fatality rate of 2%. For example, if it spread across a city of 1 million people, 20,000 people would die. And, if it spread across a nation/region of 10 million people, 200,000 people would die.
Most viruses are beneficial
A virus is a microorganism smaller than a bacterium that cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. They are like little machines that use living cells to copy themselves. A virus invades living cells and uses their chemical machinery to maintain and to replicate itself. It may reproduce with fidelity or with errors (mutations); this ability to mutate is responsible for the ability of some viruses to change slightly in each infected person, making treatment difficult.
On their own, outside a cell, viruses don’t do anything at all. They have no metabolism, no motion, no ability to reproduce. Scientists debate whether viruses, when outside a host, meet the standard for being alive. To reproduce, a virus has to enter the cell of a living host and hijack that cell’s machinery to make more of the virus.
Viruses are the most abundant and diverse beings on the planet, and they’re found everywhere. Viruses regulate the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles on which all life depends. Most viruses are good. They are beneficial to their host, to organisms, to ecosystems and to people. We have more viruses in our body than bacteria. They control the numbers and species of bacteria in our body. The viruses regulate the bacteria in our bodies and in all ecosystems. In this sense, viruses are good and deserve a better reputation.
But a few viruses are harmful, like HIV, Ebola virus, Zika virus, and influenza virus.
Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold and gastrointestinal infections to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in 2012 and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. They are transmitted between animals and people – SARS was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS from dromedary camels to humans.
The name coronavirus comes from the Latin word for crown, because they are sphere-shaped but covered in spikes, which resembles a crown. The spikes are surface proteins that the virus uses to penetrate the cells of its host. Contained within this prickly shell is a string of single-stranded genetic code called RNA. As they spread from host to host, this RNA code can become easily jumbled, allowing coronaviruses to mutate quickly. This increases the chances of them gaining the ability to switch species as well as alter other characteristics, such as how infectious they are and the severity of illness they cause. It’s why so many new kinds of coronaviruses keep cropping up. It’s also why they are so hard to fight – it’s hard to hit a constantly changing target with vaccines and drugs.
Coronaviruses infect mostly bats, pigs and small mammals. But they mutate easily and can jump from animals to humans, and from one human to another. In recent years, they have become a growing player in infectious-disease outbreaks world-wide. Seven strains are known to infect humans, including this new virus, causing illnesses in the respiratory tract. Four of those strains cause common colds. Two others, by contrast, rank among the deadliest of human infections: SARS and MERS.
The new coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. The current outbreak of new coronavirus was first reported from Wuhan, China, on 31 December 2019. A concerning aspect of the COVID-19 coronavirus is that someone infected can transmit it when they have no obvious symptoms of infection.
Most coronaviruses infect animals, but not people. In the future, one or more of these other coronaviruses could potentially mutate and spread to humans, as has happened in the past. We still don’t understand why only certain coronaviruses are able to infect people.
The genome of the new virus is 29,903 bases long, one of many clues that have led scientists to believe it is very similar to SARS. Even if it can be diagnosed quickly, finding an effective treatment for a virus like this is difficult.
The main way of treating a viral infection is to find small molecules that prevent the virus from replicating inside our cells. These “antivirals” interfere with the virus’s ability to enter our cells, disrupt its ability to hijack our cellular machinery to replicate, or prevent it from escaping infected cells.
When viruses spread
Viruses can be contagious. For example, the annual flu pandemic. What can we do to limit their spread throughput a community? Vaccinations can help. But different strains can develop that weren’t expected.
Standard precautions include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing. Other precautions include wearing face masks and stringent quarantine procedures.
Why do viruses cause harm?
The Bible says that there was no harm in God’s original creation (Gen. 1:31). In the beginning, all viruses were beneficial. Why did some viruses start causing harm? Because of humanity’s fall into sin, God cursed the earth with suffering, decay and death (Gen. 3:16-19). Biology changed. And microbiology changed. Now harmful viruses are possible. This could be due to factors such as harmful mutations of beneficial viruses and/or the degradation of systems within our bodies that detect and remove harmful viruses.
How viruses change
Viruses are continuously changing as a result of genetic mutation and recombination. Mutation occurs when an error is incorporated in the viral genome. It’s a copy mistake. Recombination occurs when coinfecting viruses exchange genetic information, creating a new virus.
Mutations can be deleterious, neutral, or occasionally favorable. Only mutations that do not interfere with essential virus functions can persist in a virus population. Natural selection removes mutations that are seriously deleterious.
The human body has many systems that produce things that are like viruses. Some viruses might have escaped from a designed cellular environment. For example, if one of these systems breaks-down or a mutation happens that prevents the body from recognizing it and it keeps on copying itself.
It is suspected that the new coronavirus has escaped from another species like bats in a similar manner to bird-flu and swine-flu. A lot of species host viruses that don’t cause disease. For example ducks, geese and swans host many strains of influenza, but they don’t cause disease in the birds. These viruses were created for a purpose which is unknown to us.
But if there is mutation of a part of the virus, it might be able to “jump” from one host species to another host species. This is bad because our bodies are not designed to regulate the virus like the original host (such as a bird, pig, or bat) does. This has caused diseases like Ebola (in 2014), influenza and the new coronavirus. It has happened many times in history.
Viruses mutate all the time. The highest per base pair per generation mutation rates are found in viruses with RNA genomes. So coronaviruses have a high mutation rate. As it is assumed that mutations are the source of evolutionary progress, coronaviruses should be rapidly changing into more advanced creatures.
But despite high rates of mutation over thousands of years, viruses are still viruses. There are no viruses that are halfway through changing into other organisms. That’s like what Charles Darwin observed, the galapagos finches were still finches. There were no birds halfway through changing into another organism. These birds, although nearly identical in all other ways to mainland finches, had different beaks. They were merely an example of natural selection and indicate the huge variety within each kind of creature.
Despite the lack of evidence, Darwin proposed that by the gradual accumulation of adaptive variations, the species now existing have evolved from earlier and more primitive progenitors, and owe their intricate mechanisms of adjustment not to purposeful planning but to the impassive operation of natural laws. This is a huge assumption and if it was true, there would be millions of transitional creatures on earth that are undergoing significant change from their ancestral forms.
The idea of biological evolution assumes that over millions of years non-living matter changed into a single cell. And then the single cell changed into multicellular organisms (like viruses). And eventually the multicellular organisms changed into human beings. What a huge extrapolation from the observations of the huge variety within each kind of creature! The presupposition is that the cause of the variety within each kind of creature also causes the variety between each different kind of creature.
Mutations are essential to the theory of biological evolution. The idea is that every genetic feature in every organism was, initially, the result of a mutation (a genetic mistake). Only hereditary mutations, which occur in egg or sperm cells, can be passed to future generations and potentially contribute to evolution. It is assumed that mutations are the source of evolutionary progress. But the problem is that mutation actually causes degradation of the genome, not improvement!
Some viruses can “burn themselves out” over time. The influenza virus is at war with the human immune system. Only the strongest viruses get passed on to the next person. That is natural selection. When influenza reproduces it makes lots of errors (called mutations). Many of these accumulate as they are not affected by natural selection. For example Spanish flu started in 1917 and went extinct in 2009 after more than 10% of its genome was mutated (Carter and Sandford, 2012). This is an example of genetic entropy. All biological information systems degenerate over time – apart from intelligent intervention. Mutations accumulate over time when they are not removed by natural selection. Mutation accumulation is the primary reason we grow old and die. And we pass many of our new mutations to our children. So mutations continuously accumulate in the population – with each generation being more mutant than the last. As this is occurring in all species to some degree, they are eventually doomed to extinction. This is opposite to the idea of biological evolution!
This is happening in the genome of all species. Mutations are steadily accumulating in the populations of all creatures on earth. The genomes of all living creatures are slowly degenerating – due to the accumulation of slightly harmful mutations. And this is happening in spite of natural selection.
Viruses that jump species are dangerous. They are caused by genetic mistakes called mutations. The new coronavirus is a mutated virus. People are afraid of harmful viruses like the new coronavirus. They are wearing face masks. Life is precarious. That’s why people need to know the promises of Jesus. It’s a time to tell people about salvation. When we trust in God, fear is replaced with the assurance of God’s presence (Ps. 16:11; 23:4). The Bible tells Christians to “cast all your anxiety on Him [God], because He cares for you” (1 Pt. 5:7NIV).
Why does God allow such things to happen? When things go wrong in our world, we should be reminded of what went wrong in God’s good creation. We live in a cursed and fallen world. We are all affected by the fall and we don’t know when something like this might overtake us. No one is immune from that. We can get vaccinated against the flu, but we can’t get vaccinated against the curse and the fall. The only hope is to trust in Jesus. Trouble and suffering will always exist, but you can have peace in your heart knowing your future is safely in God’s hands. Our hope is not on this earth, but in the Creator of this earth who has promised a new earth where there will be no mutated harmful viruses.
It’s wise to protect yourself against this outbreak. At the same time, don’t let anxiety consume your life.
Let’s pray for those infected with the new coronavirus (COVID-19). And for their family and friends. Let’s pray for those afraid of COVID-19. Let’s pray for those impacted by shutdowns, quarantine, restrictions, and suffering economic impacts. They are all being affected by the consequences of the curse.
God has not promised us long life, nor good health. But He has promised to redeem this sin-cursed world and our disease-wracked bodies and so our hope is not here on this earth anyway. Let’s look to Him for hope, for our future redemption.
Postscript: COVID-19 statistics
In Europe, the COVID-19 death rate on 31 March 2020 was approaching 20 per 100,000 population (see above). These data are more reliable than the case-fatality rates.
Because of likely under-reporting of COVID-19 in some countries (such as China) and limited testing in most countries, the actual numbers of cases are probably greater than those given below. For example, a factor of 5-10 has been quoted because of limited testing for COVID-19. This means that the real case-fatality rates are much lower that those stated below.
On 21 February 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics were:
– 75,770 cases and 2,130 deaths, which is a 2.8% case fatality rate.
On 28 February 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics were:
– 83,730 cases and 2,870 deaths, which is a 3.4% case fatality rate.
On 7 March 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics were:
– 100,700 cases and 3,455 deaths, which is a 3.4% case fatality rate.
On 17 March 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics were:
– 179,100 cases and 7,080 deaths, which is a 3.9% case fatality rate (Johns Hopkins data).
On 21 March 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics were:
– 275,470 cases and 11,400 deaths, which is a 4.1% case fatality rate (Johns Hopkins data).
On 1 April 2020 the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) statistics were:
– 860,800 cases and 42,355 deaths, which is a 4.9% case fatality rate (Johns Hopkins data).
As a reference, in the US:
– About 61,000 died of influenza in the year 2017-2018, mostly from secondary pneumonia.
– About 40,000 people die every year in crashes on US roadways. The US traffic fatality rate is 12 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (the current population fatality rate for COVID-19 in Europe shown in the graph above is 20 per 100,000 people).
Carter R W (2020) “Coronaviruses in creation”, Creation.com.
Carter RW and Sandford J C, 2012, “A new look at an old virus: patterns of mutation accumulation in the human H1N1 influenza virus since 1918”, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, 9, 42.
Sandford J C (2014) “Genetic entropy”, FMS Publications.
Written, February 2020