the corona chronicles – day 5

today i want to talk about the virus in the room – SARS-CoV-2. it’s name tells us that it is a close relative of SARS-CoV, which is a virus that struck in 2002. it is also a more distant relative of MERS-CoV that struct in 2012. all three belong to a family of viruses called “corona” because of why they appear under the microscope (hence the “CoV” for “coronavirus”) and they all cause respiratory difficulties in humans (hence “RS” for “respiratory syndrome”).

all three also crossed from other species of mammal (most likely bats) into humans, which meant we had no defences against them (neither our immune systems nor medications), so they had the potential of spreading rapidly like a fire that starts in an unmanaged forest after a long draught.

SARS-CoV that struck in 2002 infected about 8000 people and caused 774 deaths with a mortality rate of about 9%. luckily through the introduction of various measure we managed to eradicate it by the summer of 2003. MERS-CoV came a decade later and is unfortunately still on-going, although it has been largely contained. to date it has infected about 2500 and caused 858 deaths with a frightening mortality rate of about 35%.

SARS-CoV-2, the most recent strain to evolve, has already infected over 300,000 people and caused nearly 13,000 deaths. it has an estimated fatality rate ranging between 2% to 6%. more worryingly is the fact that current figures relating to SARS-CoV-2, which has now been recognised as a pandemic, are just the tip of the iceberg. by the time we get on top of it fatality numbers are probably going to be higher than one would wish to even contemplate.

the obvious question is therefore how a virus that is seemingly less dangerous becomes a greater killer.

to understand that we need to go back and look at what a virus is. the next few paragraphs are probably not entirely scientifically accurate, but for the purists amongst you i hope not too inaccurate.

a virus is essentially a short piece of DNA (sometimes RNA) or in other words a little bit of genetic material. as all DNA it has a sole directive which it follows ruthlessly and single-mindedly –  to spread itself as far as possible. i used words like “ruthless” and “single-minded”, but probably “mindlessly” would have been more appropriate if at all, because a virus is nothing more than a chemical machine. actually it is not even that – it is just a set of instructions for a chemical machine to make infinite copies of the virus. it has no desires nor cognition. it is merely obeying the programme embedded into it, which is to continue making copies of itself.

to us a virus – particularly the above three – or a menace because the present a mortal danger. However, for the virus we are merely ships navigating the oceans on which it travels in its never ending quest to conquer all the corners of the earth. if fact for the virus to kill us makes as much sense as for passengers to drill holes through the hull of the ship carrying them. when a person infected by a virus dies all the copies of the virus still in that person will also perish and thus fail in their ultimate quest to spread themselves.

this gives us the first glimpse into the greater spread of SARS-CoV-2 and therefore its greater success in its mission. by not killing its hosts as ruthlessly as his cousins it has managed to travel much farther and will unfortunately continue to do so. if you look at the numbers above then there is in fact a reverse correlation between the fatality rate of each of the three viruses and the number of people each has infected and so how successful it has been. this clearly demonstrates that killing the host is counter-productive from the virus view point.

there is another aspect to this story in the fact that those viruses infect humans. over and above our immune system, which many other animals have too, and which fight infections like viruses, we are also highly intelligent and highly organised. that has allowed us to develop more tools to fight viruses such as medicines, chemicals and various social structures. for a virus to be successful, and that is to become widespread, it has to overcome those too.

the first two coronaviruses were very aggressive. they were very fatal, but also provoked a very strong response by our defence mechanisms – both immune system and health care systems. because they were so aggressive we acted equally aggressively and managed to defeat one and contain the other. by contrast, the most recent strain – SARS-CoV-2 – only causes very mild symptoms in most people and relative to its cousins causes far fewer fatalities. it also has a longer incubation period during which it is able to cross from person to person before it is noticed. by not alerting us to its presence it is able to spread without having to contend with out immune system as well as the other tools we have to fight it.

this gives us an insight not just into how viruses work, but also how natural selection works. SARS-CoV-2 is clearly more suitable to spread amongst humans. by modulating some of its aspects – lowering the fatality rate and having a longer incubation period – it has become much more successful than its predecessors and particularly its now extinct close cousin SARS-CoV.

but what all that has to do with karate?

well, consider this in the context of self-defence:

remember that from the virus’s view point its success isn’t measured by whether it has managed to defeat us, but by whether it has managed to live on and spread itself beyond. when we are faced with a self-defence situation, or more generally any adverse situation, we should remain focused on what is the most desirable outcome for us. defeating an aggressor isn’t and should be a goal onto itself – it is merely one possible outcome. our sole focus should be on surviving with as little harm to ourselves as possible. if we have an option to leave with our pride injured, but out body whole then so be it. similarly, if we have an option to leave with a hole in our pocket instead of a punctured abdomen, so be it. we should think like a virus – be only as aggressive as the situation warrants because any aggression will provoke an equal response, and focus on surviving the situation rather than coming out on top.

more generally that applies to any confrontation in life even if it is a mere heated exchange of words. always remember what is your ultimate objective and focus on achieving it rather than winning the argument. consider the option of giving way, but if the attainment of your objective necessitates a form of aggression don’t shy away from it. and then use only the necessary minimum.