I have a background in Science and my degree was a double major in Microbial Science and Zoology. I have always been in awe of the natural world and have never fully understood why some Christians avoid Science or see it as some sort of enemy of the faith. The Earth is God’s gift to us - an eagerness to explore it, to delight in it and to be curious about how it all works is an expression of appreciation and a way to better know the giver. To show no interest seems to me to be akin to your Dad building you the most glorious dolls’ house with all sorts of doorways and rooms and intricate workings - and then not even opening it.
In past weeks I have heard a range of theories about who or what created Covid 19…from conspiracy theories that it is a man-made virus to spiritual teachings that the Devil made it, but I believe God created viruses. Viruses tend to get a bad rap because a small percentage of them harm humans, but this is usually when humans take them out of their natural environments. Viruses are in fact quite fascinating - I marvel that they contain the same type of nucleic acid based genetic code as us and I’m impressed by their resilience and the brilliant simplicity of their modus operandi. They are even quite beautiful to look at- take a look at the transmission electron microscope images of Covid-19. How exciting it must’ve been for the first scientists to look down a microscope and discover that there are thousands of species that we couldn’t even see. To assume Covid 19 is the creation of mankind or the Devil would be giving either far too much credit.
Viruses are extremely small and simple - they can’t even replicate on their own. Viruses carry only the essential genetic information they need to be able to slip inside a host cell and coax it into making new copies of itself. The influenza virus, for instance, has a mere 14 protein-coding genes compared to human cells that have between 50000 and 100000 genes. A virus contains genetic code but it doesn’t have all the enzymes needed to replicate itself so it attaches to a host cell, inserts in its genetic material and uses the hosts cell’s machinery to make more copies of itself. When the host cell is filled with these copies of the virus it lyses (breaks apart) and releases the viruses to repeat the process again on another cell.
The only thing a virus does is reproduce when it finds a host cell. It cannot even move on its own. A virus has no evil plan - it has no brain and no free will as we do - its actions are predictable. It is not even in a virus’ best interests to kill its host…it is better if the host keeps moving about because this is vital to spread the virus to new hosts. If you take a moment to think about what a basic thing a virus is and how it operates you will avoid giving it more power than is real. Covid-19 is not an advanced species capable of being “a nasty enemy” and we are not in lockdown to hide from it because it cannot see or move. We simply need to stay home to stop ourselves inadvertently moving it about.
The vast majority of viruses are able to use a host cell to reproduce and cause little or no damage to that host. In fact there is growing evidence that viruses may be beneficial to their host. One study suggests that people absorb up to 30 billion viruses called bacteriophages every day through their intestines and that these viruses are providing natural protection from harmful bacteria. Humans also make use of viruses and their properties - particularly their ability to attach to cells and inject genetic material into them. Modified viruses can be used to target and kill cancer cells, to treat a variety of genetic diseases as gene and cell therapy tools, or to serve as vaccine delivery agents. The ability to treat diseases using viruses, often referred to as virotherapy, has become the subject of intensive research in recent years.
But all this talk of viruses being interesting, simple and useful creations of God is of little comfort to someone battling to breathe as their body overreacts to Covid 19. It would still be fair to exclaim: But why God would you create this one, this Covid 19 whose symptoms can cause people to die? This is where it is important to take note that of the known viruses that infect humans, the vast majority perpetuate naturally in non-human “reservoirs,” largely farm mammals and poultry and in wild animals and arthropods. These viruses were not meant for us and the virus never sought us out - humans intentionally took its natural host from its habitat and placed it within droplet transmission of human lungs. A live animal market called the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan City is suspected as the original source of COVID-19. Many initial cases involved people who worked at or were handlers and frequent visitors to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. Similar live animal markets operate in Asia and Africa. These markets involve bringing live animals, sometimes exotic, to humans in crowded and unhygienic settings - something that was signalled as a time bomb for a Covid 19 type pandemic back in 2007. But we humans are good at ignoring inconvenient warnings.
It is not just live animal markets that cause problems. Humans have a history of bringing viruses from other species to us via other means too. Research has shown that deforestation and global warming have changed the habitats of some species and increased their contact with humans. In 1997 for example the burning of rainforests in Indonesia drove bats into new areas in search of food. By 1999, 265 people had developed a severe brain inflammation, and 105 had died. It was the first known emergence of Nipah virus in people, which has since caused a string of recurrent outbreaks across Southeast Asia.
At this point you may be feeling tempted to lay the blame at the feet of other people, perhaps to blame particular countries or races of people- but do take the time to ask yourself some questions…here are a few to get you started:
- Poverty is a driving factor for the persistence of live animal markets. People desperate for money will sell anything and poor people need a food source. Have you donated money to developing countries?
- Have you done anything to help prevent worldwide deforestation? Unnecessarily destroying the natural habitat of wild animals is something people do all over the world. Check out this animation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbS1VJyonuA
- Did you enjoy air travel with little thought about the effect on global warming and how that can drive species out of their normal habitats? Did you arrive at your destination, think about the viruses you could be bringing into a new area and take extra care? The separation of continents and islands on the Earth and the time taken to reach destinations would prevent viral spread but time is money and humans demand fast travel.
- Once transmitted to a human, viruses like Covid-19 only thrive in dense populations. It is not the number of humans that is the problem, it is how we have chosen to live. 95 % of humans occupy 10 % of the Earth’s land because most humans live in cities, built that way to maximise their money making capacity. Urbanisation is still on the increase. Would you give up financial gain and convenience to live more rurally?
- Did you care much about the SARS outbreak in 2002, the thousands infected over 29 countries and the more than 700 dead or was it a case of not your backyard, not your problem?
- The risk of pathogenic viruses being transmitted to humans is high in settings involving the selling of live exotic animals in unhygienic conditions - situations where people prioritise profit over safe practices. Have you ever tried to cut corners with health and safety practices to save a dollar? Are you someone who is happy to pay more for goods that are produced safely or are you more interested in finding the cheapest deal?
- Covid 19 is more likely to kill vulnerable groups. Here in New Zealand, vaccinologist Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris said with just about every infectious disease the terrible burden tends to fall on people who are the most deprived, Māori and Pacific people. Have you given much thought to why there are such inequalities in NZ? Have you done anything about it?
I did not write this to make you feel guilt or to despair at our human selfishness, I wrote it to encourage you to dwell on the word ‘repentance’ as we approach Easter and to remind you that as people of faith, there is always hope. I want you to remember that it is not all bad news. The good news is that despite our bad choices, our freewill is worth it because it allows us to choose to love God and therefore to have a genuine relationship with Him. The good news is that our God is ever merciful, ever forgiving and sticks with us through our suffering, even when that suffering is of our own making. The good news is that our God shows us grace and lets us repent and turn to Him everyday afresh. The good news is that he gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit - that we do have a guide to help us get better day by day at making good decisions - at doing God’s will. It is so heartening that the fruits of the Spirit can be seen everywhere right now and will help us through this.
There is lot to be grateful for this and every Easter.