If there’s a silver lining to the tragedy of the Covid19 pandemic, it’s what we are learning and appreciating about our place on the planet and how our human existence impacts and is impacted by our fellow species.
Nearly everything on earth has an anatomy. SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the disease we know as Covid19, has an anatomy. It’s in the family of corona viruses that all look similarly on a microscopic scale, with spikes stemming from a spherical surface. SARS, MERS, and SARS-CoV-2 are cousins in the family.
Just like humans, which developed from primates, SARS-CoV-2 has been tweaking itself over time. Since it arrived on our shores, scientists have been mapping its genome and noting its mutations. In this way, they can monitor the virus’ spread and identify how it is moving through the population. For instance, the SARS-CoV-2 genome taken from a patient who tests positive in New York City in August looks decidedly different from the SARS-CoV-2 genome taken from a patient in Seattle in January. Think of these scientists a bit like archeologists who find a certain bone in a certain country and, with carbon dating, can place that animal chronologically in its place. Mutations often help put it there.
Check out this source for real-time tracking of the SARS-CoV-2 evolution.
Consider Charles Darwin’s sketched Tree of Life sketch, which illustrated his idea that species share common ancestors over time. SARS-CoV-2 has its own tree of life and it’s going bonkers this year.
The virus has landed in humans, but it traveled to get to us. The pandemic has revealed how interconnected we are with all the Earth’s other species. Virologists aren’t the only busy researchers in 2020. Globally, economists and environmentalists are also weighing in on how humans themselves have made pandemics more and more likely. This article in Nature
supports through research how a steady, tragic decline in biodiversity has led to the increase likelihood of global pandemics like the one we are experiencing now. Learn more about that here and here.
When we were early humans, cooking and socializing around a campfire, microbes were exchanged all the time. We got them and gave them when we farmed and hunted, too. This regular exchange made us healthier and more resilient.
But eons ago, we didn’t have planes to take us to different continents. Nor did we encroach on wild spaces in the oppressive way we do now. Nor did we grow monocultures and raise single species of animals in packed warehouses which has accelerated and exacerbated health concerns as Rob Wallace wrote in Big Farms Make Big Flu.
Maybe we should take a tip from the underground. When scientists consider what’s below, they behind to appreciate what’s above. A tree is “a node in a network of underworld exchanges between fungi, roots, bacteria, lichen, insects, and other plants,” wrote Kate Brown, a professor in the Science, Technology, and Society program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Our picture of the human body is shifting, too. It seems less like a self-contained vessel, defined by one’s genetic code and ruled by a brain, than like a microbial ecosystem that sweeps along in atmospheric currents, harvesting gases, bacteria, phages, fungal spores, and airborne toxins in its nets.”
As much as we need to isolate nowadays, scientists are helping us understand that humans are part of a massive web of living creatures, flora and fauna. We can’t just take care of ourselves if we want to avoid the next pandemic.