Viruses are, to me, very intriguing little bugs. They’re not dead in that they reproduce and go from person-to-person (or animal-to-animal) and make copies of themselves. They’re not alive in that they don’t really have much of an internal system for consuming and using up energy. All they ask is that we let them into a cell and they’ll do their thing there. Of course, while they do their thing, they’ll destroy that cell and many times make us feel miserable. Sometimes, if the conditions are just right, they’ll manage to kill us. These tiny, little things that are many times smaller than a bacteria — which are pretty small to begin with — can really bring us down, and our society with them if we’re not careful.
You’ve probably heard before about how we can put a man on the Moon but we can’t cure the common cold. That’s because the common cold is caused by a myriad of viruses. Some of these viruses mutate too fast for our immune systems to keep up. That’s why the average adult has several colds during the year. The average child has many colds during the year, and they’ll be sure to pass them onto you. Show me a person who says that they’ve never gotten sick with a cold, and I’ll show you a liar. They may have never gotten sick enough to notice, but we’ve all been infected with a cold. Trust me.
With regards to survival of their “species”, viruses that cause colds are perfect. They mutate quickly, so they can bypass the immune system of their host and make it impossible for us to create anti-viral medications against them. (No, zinc preparations or lozenges do not work.) They are readily transmissible from one host to the next, and they can even cross species and infect multiple hosts. The perfect virus doesn’t kill you. Instead, it keeps you alive long enough for you to pass it on to the next person. If it kills you too fast, then it dies with you when your entire village is wiped out. You don’t get to walk to the next village and pass it on to new people. If it kills you too slow, then it’s not mutating enough and we can find medication to slow its progression or stop it altogether.
Ebola virus is a very scary virus because of how it kills you, but I’m not afraid of it in the least bit. It can only be transmitted by contact with secretions, so standard precautions and proper handling of sharps takes care of that. The disease is also very acute, meaning that you get infected and get sick very quickly. There’s little time for you to be infectious because symptoms, severe ones, arrive just as you’re becoming infectious. You don’t really feel up to the task of walking to the next village. As a bioweapon, Ebola would be scary, but it would not be that effective. Yes, it would kill a lot of people initially, but we’d be able to bring it under control in a couple of days once we knew there were cases of it and we know what to look for. A simple message of “DO NOT TOUCH INFECTED PEOPLE’S BLOOD OR BODY FLUIDS” would go a long way toward stopping it. (Though this hasn’t stopped the HIV-AIDS epidemic, people with HIV infections go very long without any symptoms. You wouldn’t want to “hook up” with someone bleeding out of every single orifice.)
The influenza (“flu”) virus is also very scary. It has before, and will again, cause pandemics that will kill millions. It mutates fast, just like cold viruses do, but it has the distinct feature of making people very, very, very sick. Now, some will tell you that the flu is no big deal. They’re either lying, have never had the flu (unlikely), or have been led astray by the interests of anti-science groups and individuals. Each year, enough people come down with the flu and/or are hospitalized with it and/or die from it that it costs us billions of dollars in lost productivity and healthcare costs. In the flu, you have a virus that is deadly, easily transmittable, can inhabit different species, mutates, and for which there are virtually no medication. (Oseltamivir is useful if given within the first few hours of symptoms and best used for people at high risk of complications, like pregnant women who get the flu. Don’t put too much into the commercials telling you that you should demand it from your doctor if you’re not at high risk of complications.) But we have vaccines with an excellent safety record, albeit a bit of outdated technology that we can and should improve on. If everyone who could get vaccinated did, especially people who are for sick people, the flu would not be that much of an existential threat.
For my money, measles is the best type of virus to make as many people sick as possible, as fast as possible, and end up killing enough to scare them into compliance. (That’s pretty much the gist of a bioweapon, right?) It is so infectious that 90% of non-immune people that come into contact with it will get it. It stays floating in the air for up to four hours if you breathe it out of your body and into a room. Although it doesn’t mutate as much as other viruses, we still haven’t been able to find a cure or effective treatment against it. Like its cousin Smallpox — which has been eradicated with a vaccine — measles infects only humans and primates (as primary hosts, other animals may inadvertently catch it but won’t pass it on). So there would be no danger to killing off food animals like chickens and pigs if you released a “super measles” into the population. Lucky for us there’s a vaccine that makes 90% of people who get one dose and 99% of those who get two doses immune. Unlucky for us, the refusal to vaccinate is brining measles back in the United States and the rest of the Americas, a part of the world that was once considered “measles-free”.
Then there are the viruses that cause cancer. You may have heard about Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and how it can cause cervical cancer in women. Well, there’s a couple of other viruses you should worry about if you’re prone to worrying about cancer. For example, hepatitis B and hepatitis C can both irritate the liver to the point of triggering cancer. HTLV and Epstein-Barr viruses can cause leukemia and lymphoma. Though it doesn’t cause cancer directly, HIV can weaken the immune system to the point that it cannot find and kill cancer cells in your body, at which time HIV has triggered AIDS. The conspiracy about HIV and AIDS pretty much states that HIV was created or manufactured or engineered to kill people, a sort of bioweapon against the “unclean”. But it’s long incubation phase and the fact that anti-retroviral therapy can pretty much give you a long and healthy life make the whole conspiracy laughable.
If I were to design the perfect bioweapon, I would make it as infectious as measles. I would give it an incubation time that was reasonable; say, between ten and fourteen days. But that incubation period couldn’t be so long that it buy us time to save people or isolate them. On day seven of that incubation, you’d be very infectious, getting everyone around you infected while you feel completely fine. The virus would also mutate just fast enough to stay ahead of vaccines but not so fast that it “burns out” or loses its ability to be infectious. It would also stick to just the human population. No need to make Fido sick over nothing. (This has the additional benefit of a rouge state creating this super weapon and then sealing off its borders so no one with it can come in.) Finally, once you did get the full-blown symptoms, you’d get some sort of a scarring syndrome with lots of suffering that can’t be quite relieved by modern medicine.
How’s that for a nightmare scenario?
No worries, though. There’s an enormous group of people from every country, every race, every creed, all united through science and technology looking out for these threats, ready to fight back and look after you… Even on Christmas.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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