Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH
The deadly coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world in early 2020 brings to mind a wonderfully astute passage from the start of Bill Bryson’s entertaining romp through science: “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”
“To be here now, alive in the twenty-first century and smart enough to know it, you also had to be the beneficiary of an extraordinary string of biological good fortune. Survival on Earth is a surprisingly tricky business. Of the billions and billions of species of living things that have existed since the dawn of time, most—99.99 percent—are no longer around. Life on Earth, you see, is not only brief but dismayingly tenuous. It is a curious feature of our existence that we come from a planet that is very good at promoting life but even better at extinguishing it.”
And so we do. The planet creates and the planet destroys and one outcome is as good as the other, apparently. It is a maker, breaker planet. If our planet had feelings, which it decidedly doesn’t (sorry Gaia fans), Earth could best be described as ambivalent toward life.
So along comes the novel coronavirus, technically named SARS-CoV-2, which causes the dreaded Covid-19 disease. It’s both fascinating and horrible that death can come calling in so minute a package. Virus particles are about one-millionth of an inch, or about 1,000 times smaller than a bacterium. I know; I have trouble visualizing that, too. At least as unhelpful is this fun fact: 55 million of them could fit in the period at the end of this sentence. That is beyond comprehension.
And yet this absurdly minuscule packet of genetic material hijacks cells to do its bidding, which is to create more absurdly minuscule packets of genetic material. And it will do this even if the collateral damage is the eventual death of many hosts, which would be counterproductive if there weren’t so many more hosts for the virus left to infect.
You have to hand it to nature. When it comes to death and destruction, it can go as mind-bogglingly small as a virus or as breathtakingly large as a volcano or earthquake. That is quite the range.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a reminder that life on this planet is a game of existential dodgeball not just for us as individuals but, sometimes entire species. The new coronavirus will, tragically, take many lives but our species will survive it. We’re not yet the dinosaurs after the asteroid that ended their 140-million year reign. That’s the good news. The bad news: one day we will be.