Traveling Salesmen, Traveling Viruses

Apparently mainstream media are leading the charge of claims that “this virus is unique”. It’s been hard to understand what they mean by this, given that it is such a close relation of Coronaviruses we are already familiar with and exposed to. This exposure seems to be the reason that the majority of people infected with Covid-19 experience no, to very mild, symptoms.

Every year Influenza and seasonal Influenza-Like-Illnesses such as those we usually refer to as the common cold cause up to 600,000 deaths worldwide. These infections vary considerably across regions and time. They are also much more lethal to children and young people, than Covid-19 is.

So why is Covid-19 unique? Is it because “the virus” causes small businesses to fold en masse globally, millions of children to miss out on at least one full school year (many of whom will never return), many millions to go hungry, and it throws millions into bankruptcy, despair and desolation? Yet simultaneously, “the virus” apparently doesn’t have the same risks to or from the wealthy, as it does to or from those of us with “lower value” existences? For example, from today’s UK news:

New Business Traveller Exemption: From 4am on Sat 5th Dec high-value business travellers will no longer need to self-isolate when returning to ENGLAND from a country NOT in a travel corridor, allowing more travel to support the economy and jobs. Conditions apply.

Nick Hudson from PANDA made an excellent observation today which resonated with me:
Among the most incisive people I’ve had deep discussions with about Covid are ecologists. The good ones grok the complexity of natural systems and are immune to the assaults of simplistic intuitions. Plus you get to yack about bats and elephants when you need a break.

When I studied infectious diseases many years ago, I came away with a very strong sense that “we are at war”. It’s a war that most of us don’t know we’re battling. The three main aspects to this war are:

  • Certain microorganisms which, when they enter our body, have the potential to do us harm.
  • When these microorganisms enter in small numbers, or when our own immune system is speedy and strong enough to mount a response, we are able to fight them off. In the process our body learns the specific tactics used by a specific organism so that next time, should a larger assault happen, we can strategically battle them. This is what keeps infectious diseases at bay, and not a lack of exposure because actually exposures to many millions of microorganisms are happening to us everyday. Our immune system needs this exposure in order to maintain it’s fitness levels against them.
  • Microorganisms that, from the very moment we are born, enter our body and lay down protective layers which are able to battle against the harmful organisms all around us. Our intestines are an excellent example of this. They are teeming with “safe” microorganisms which not only aid in digestion by breaking down the food we eat, but also create a battleground to defend against any harmful organisms we ingest. For this reason only high enough doses of the wrong type of organism can actually cause us food poisoning.

One big concern of enforced lockdown and social distancing strategies is that this battle between us and the microorganisms we need to keep our immune systems robust is disrupted. Professor Sunetra Gupta spoke about this complex system at an infectious disease conference seven years ago, stating in part :

Virulent pathogens cannot be the only things that we bring back from the countries where they originated. It is more likely that we are constantly importing less virulent forms, which go undetected because they’re asymptomatic, and these may well have the effect of attenuating the severity of infection with their more virulent cousins. After all the oldest trick up our sleeves, as far as vaccination goes, is to use a milder species to protect against a more virulent species. Perhaps this is something we are inadvertently achieving by mixing more widely with a variety of international pathogens. It is telling that none of the victims of this highly pathogenic Avian Flu belonged to the professions who are most exposed to Avian Influenza: chicken sellers, purveyors of swan blood curd… It is possible that their constant exposure to less pathogenic avian viruses have lent them some protection against the highly pathogenic variant. Protection may not always be perfect, but as long as it turns what could be a life threatening episode into a mere inconvenience, we cannot really complain. It is still of course, entirely possible that we will be plunged into a dystopic state by the sudden emergence of an entirely novel, pathogenic life form, or that an old foe may return in a completely new disguise. But our current pattern of long distance movements across the planet reinforces the possibility that we will already have some acquaintance with the emergence of these new agents of disease“.


3 thoughts on “Traveling Salesmen, Traveling Viruses

  1. There is still a deafening silence about herd immunity only mentioned as coming about once everyone is vaccinated BUT we are told we are in a pandemic. Millions have been exposed many asymptomatic, have no symptoms or only mild to moderate. Only testing reveals this as so few get seriously ill. Which implies most/all of these now have natural immunity, so have no need for a vaccine. Eg I had measles as a child therefore I do not need a measles jab. ?

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  2. If testing is accurate as reflected in the large case-demic figures the implications are widespread herd immunity. If testing is inaccurate the implications are there is not a pandemic. Either way there would be no need for 100% vaccination cover.

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