Today’s guest David Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that genetic information in viruses could flow from RNA to DNA, establishing an exception to the Central Dogma of Biology. He is the author of the Baltimore Classification scheme for viruses, and has done important research in the role of viruses in diseases from AIDS to cancer. We talk about what viruses are, how they work, and the status of the novel coronavirus we are currently battling. David also has some strong opinions about public health and how we should be preparing for future outbreaks.
It’s fascinating to learn all this from a real expert. I didn’t really know what a retrovirus is. Or why a virus that lives in the cells of, say, a bat, without doing any harm, can wreak havoc when jumping into a human. Or that viruses can have viruses. Or that viruses favour speed in reproduction, while more complex organisms favour accuracy. Or how viruses insert strands of their own DNA in the host’s DNA, so that from there on, the virus' DNA is transferred from generation to the next, forever. In fact, we have old virus DNA all over our genome.
Viruses are sneaky little critters.1
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The State of Things
Just for the record, we are at close to 12 million reported Covid-19 cases. The flags all over the globe are, or should be, orange to red, with the case numbers exploding in many areas. As said, this pandemic is far from over.
An acquaintance pointed me to this website, which has detailed information lacking on the Johns Hopkins one. In particular, the table with all the countries contains figures for cases per one million people, not just the total number, which appears to be a better metric than the raw totals. Or the number of tests per one million people. Sort the table for the number you’re interested in.
Here on the island, everything is quite normal, aside from everyone wearing a mask and keeping the distance. In September, when the borders are planned to be opened, we’ll see what happens then. Right now, there are a few hundred people in quarantine, arrivals from abroad – I assume repatriated residents, as otherwise the borders are locked up –, which shows that there are procedures in place to detect them upon arrival.
In case there should actually be tourists who want to enter Mauritius, – and there could be, seeing how many Europeans are crazy about their sacred yearly vacations – I don’t know how this situation will be handled. A fortnight of quarantine for everyone will not be feasible. Spending your planned two weeks of vacation in quarantine, in case you’re found carrying the virus upon entry, does not sound like fun either. Simply confine the tourists to their hotels? But would you want to spend your vacation among people who are potentially infected?
Ayo. I am glad I don’t have to make these decisions. But for now I am still confident that our government will do the Right Thing,™ as they did during the past months: as of today, Mauritius is around number 139 in the list of cases per one million people, and number 16 as regards number of tests per one million people.2
The more we learn about the coronavirus, the scarier it becomes.
Read in this Washington Post article how SARS-CoV-2 affects all parts of our bodies. Lasting brain injury, even if you “recover”? I could go with a limp, but brain damage scares the shit out of me. My brain is my favourite tool.
Or check out in this NY Times article, how Covid-19 spreads through asymptomatic carriers, and how long this was neglected by most health organisations, against scientific evidence.
This Science Weekly Guardian podcast is titled Covid-19: Why are people suffering long-term symptoms? No comment needed.
One major takeaway from NY Times' The Daily podcast: Covid-19 is not a respiratory disease, but a vascular one. The virus enters through the respiratory system, but attaches to the blood vessels, then potentially creating very small blood clots, which can cause problems everywhere we have small veins: lungs, brain, kidneys, toes, fingers…
Another important point in the aforementioned The Daily podcast: it’s becoming more and more evident that the transmission via aerosols is at least as pervasive as via touch, if not much more so. This article underlines that.
So we need to add an additional simple measure to the existing three for staying safe when meeting or coming across strangers:
- keep distance
- wear a mask
- wash your hands
- avoid closed indoor spaces
As regards possible regimes and measures that could possibly be put in place by Mauritius upon opening our borders, here’s an overview of what other countries are doing, with many in the list being in similar climatic and economic circumstances as Mauritius. The article written from the perspective of US citizens, who are banned to travel to many countries globally, but nonetheless lays out a palette of possible measures and conditions.
Sadly, Swedens liberal approach does not seem to pay off. As the article’s title says, Sweden has become the world’s cautionary tale.
Regarding the question if viruses are actually alive, Baltimore says they are. If we apply this definition of life: a process that is able to maintain its structure – and through the patterns in this structure its information – and able to reproduce, he is right. ↩︎
To compare: rank as regards number of cases per one million (high rank number is good)/number of tests per one million (low rank number is good): Mauritius: 139/16; USA: 13/25; Brazil: 16/104; Sweden: 18/53; Switzerland: 37/40; Austria: 65/41; India: 115/138; Australia: 128/28. ↩︎