Paula LaBrot

So, now we all know there is a city in China called Wuhan. Wuhan is the epicenter of the new coronavirus, which scientists are desperately trying to rein in before the world is involved in a full-blown pandemic. There is no question that modern advances in biotechnology are having an enormous effect on the identification of this new threat to the world’s health and the development of vaccines and drugs to combat it.

Viruses are tiny packages. The outer protein coat covers a strand of RNA or DNA. “It surprises many people to learn that viruses “live” in us but aren’t technically alive. Viruses can replicate only inside the cells of their host…. Eventually, the host cell dies, spewing new viruses to attack more cells. That is how viruses sicken a host that can be an animal, plant, bacterium, or fungus,” according to Andrew Bridges writing for sciencenewsforstudents.org.

The changes viruses make are called mutations. Every year the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other members of the World Health Organization (WHO) conduct what they call “year-round surveillance of circulating influenza viruses to monitor changes to the genome (or parts of the genome) of these viruses.”

The information the CDC collects from studying genetic changes in influenza viruses plays an important public health role by helping to determine whether vaccines and antiviral drugs will work against currently circulating influenza viruses, as well as helping to determine the potential for influenza viruses in animals to infect humans. So, big data is not all bad. This is an area in which it can be lifesaving.

The ability to collect rapid information allows a global response by health agencies to classify, sequence, and combat viral strains that threaten vast numbers of people. The new virus of 2020 became capable of infecting people in early December. By December 31, Chinese scientists reported the virus to WHO. Two weeks later, the genetic sequence was isolated and published.

That has not always been the case.



As hunter-gatherers gave way to agriculture and industrialization, populations became denser. People living in closer contact became hosts for viruses which easily mutated, learned to jump from animals to people, then from person-to-person.

The first known viral epidemic in Europe was during the Age of Pericles. It arrived with the Persian soldiers and killed half of Athens. In 1918 the Spanish Flu, which jumped from soldier to soldier in the trenches of World War I, swept through the world, killing 50 to 100 million people. In the 1980’s, AIDS traveled the Kinshasa Trans-African highway, lined with prostitutes who serviced truckers. The truckers took the virus out into the world (sex is just about the most effective vehicle for a virus or bacteria to spread).

In 2003, the SARS epidemic (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), emerged from a China that hid patients from World Health officials. “At one of the most reputable of the city’s hospitals, 31 patients suffering the potentially lethal disease were driven around in ambulances for the duration of the WHO visit,” according to Time Magazine.

There’s a good Twelve Step Program for people who are so shame-based.



China has undergone a “mutation.” The present H1N1 virus that has the world concerned is being treated very differently than SARS. The Chinese immediately reported the virus.

“Identifying and genetically sequencing the pathogen was done quickly, which shows the capacity that China has now. Importantly, it was shared immediately, Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organization, remarked in a press conference, “That’s why Korea, Japan, and Thailand were able to diagnose cases so quickly.”

Modern technology has “mutated” as well. The Chinese, our CDC and other genome analysis centers use Advanced Molecular Detection Technology to develop a whole genetic fingerprint of a virus’ DNA or RNA. Fast! From there, scientists test and develop effective vaccines. The Influenza Vaccine Manufacturing Improvement Initiative is bringing together government health agencies, pharmaceutical companies and the biotech industry to create better, faster, and more effective vaccines for the flu.



The United States’ CDC contributes its research findings to groups like the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data. Coupled with the huge collections of data tracking viruses, scientists can pinpoint origins and even recognize an epidemic before it gets roaring. It took months to get a full genetic sequence on SARS and Eboloa. It took a year for Zika coming out of Brazil. It took two weeks for the present threat to be sequenced! This made diagnosis possible and set containment procedures in place. In this very connected world, that can, literally, mean the difference between life and death.



Flu viruses are airborne. You can get the flu from people breathing, sneezing, or coughing near you or by handling doorknobs, keyboards, remotes, phones, and other surfaces infected by already sick people. People are most infectious during the first three to four days of the illness. For prevention, there are anti-viral vaccines and medications which help. They may not totally prevent you from getting the flu, but they can mitigate the intensity of the infection.


With all the high-tech advances in viral disease, isn’t it ironic that preventative measures are so low tech? Antibiotics are not effective on viral infections, though you may need one for secondary infections. Good old soap and water are your main defense. Wash your hands…frequently.  Keep hands away from the face. Get enough sleep. Don’t “push through,” go to work and infect a lot of people. You may be especially dangerous to children and seniors. Take it seriously.

For the future, scientists at the National Institute of Health are working on what they call a universal vaccine that will be effective against flu viruses and their sub-types. Viruses are tricky little shapeshifters, though. We shall see.

Be well, dear readers!

Vamos a ver!


Paula LaBrot

Paula LaBrot is a 30-year resident of Topanga, a futurist with a special interest in the uncharted waters of cyberspace. plabrot@messengermountainnews.com

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