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It's Not a War, It's Biology



The pandemic has brought forth the language of war: We must fight back against the virus, engage in battles, attack the enemy. It's nonsense: Pandemics are biochemistry. Perhaps treating them as such will help depoliticize them.

Viruses are on the border between biology and chemistry; they rely on biological organisms for the "infrastructure" to reproduce themselves, having a minimal set of molecules themselves, some of which carry the instructions to be carried out by the organisms they encounter, while others allow them to attach to cells and "inject" their instructions through the cells' container walls. They have no brains, no selfhood, no enemies, no battle plans — just an ability to reproduce.

It is our misfortune that evolutionary "survival-of-the-fittest" logic dictates that viruses become good at causing their hosts to spread them widely. So, while the virus doesn't bear us any ill will, variants that incorporate chemicals that make their hosts sneeze and cough are the variants that spread because those sneezes and coughs send viral particles from our lungs into the air. The better a chemical makes us sneeze, the more the virus that incorporates that chemical spreads, and the more common it becomes (that's what "survival of the fittest" means; the spreaders are the most "fit" to their evolutionary niche). The evolutionary winners spread their copies to new hosts just as a dandelion — another "fit" evolutionary winner — spreads its seeds on the wind. The damage it causes us is as inadvertent as dandelions taking over a lawn. There is no wish to destroy us — viruses that rapidly kill their hosts, rather than cause them to sniffle and cough, are actually losers in the genetic race because a dead host is not nearly as effective a spreader of viral genes as a coughing host.

In the ongoing, awe-inspiring coevolution that is biology, potential viral hosts require ways to determine what is their own and what is "outsider." That is what our immune system does — it identifies the chemical signs of things that don't belong, and responds by disassembling them and collecting them as garbage to be expelled from our bodies.

Just as a rescue dog needs a sniff of something someone's worn in order to prepare them to find a missing person, an immune system performs best when it has already seen a chemical that it is supposed to dismantle. Thus, the amazing new messenger RNA vaccines work by causing the host — us — to build some, but not all, of the molecules a COVID-19 particle is constructed from. Our immune systems see these molecules as examples of "non-self," and are then primed to find more, deconstruct them and expel them. Because only some of the virus' molecules are built, it is fundamentally impossible for these messenger RNA vaccines to cause complete viruses to be built; at best, they can build only a bit of a larger crossword puzzle. They cannot spread infection, they only spread "awareness." That is, they give the body a preview sniff of what is "out there" so the immune system can tune itself to that new foreign object.

The more the various immune systems out there have seen of the new foreign substances that make up COVID-19, the fewer hosts will be turned into factories that churn out new copies of the virus. The fewer coughing, sneezing hosts, the fewer viral particles spread. Every immune system that is introduced to the viral molecules is one less potential factory.

There's one more piece to the puzzle. When our bodies begin reproducing the viral molecules, not every reproduction is perfect. The more reproduction that takes place, the more imperfect copies get generated. And sometimes, these imperfect copies happen to have, in some way or other, a better fit to our cells' reproductive equipment; perhaps they fit better into the membranes that surround our cells, or better fit into the reproductive factory lines themselves, or perhaps their chemicals are "better" irritants and make us sniffle and sneeze more, spreading more copies. Regardless, the more viral particles are reproduced, the better (or worse!) the odds are that new, more infectious variants, will emerge.

The pandemic we are undergoing is not a battle, not a war, because there is no enemy. The pandemic is more an example of evolution in action. We are the ones with selves, not the virus. It is our choice whether to teach our immune systems about the new molecules evolution has created or not. It is our choice whether to become viral hosts or not. The only war is between understanding and disinformation, and what a shame it would be if disinformation wins, and more people die as an inadvertent result of encountering a new virus' reproductive mechanism.

Mitch Trachtenberg (he/him) is a computer programmer and freelance writer who lives in Trinidad.

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