Humans make COVID lethal

The big mistake by some people, especially President Trump, is to style COVID as a quasi-human adversary. President Trump’s repeated references to the “Chinese Virus” are not only racist, they are immensely and technically wrong. IMO, broadcasting this error on national television confuses people and prevents them from grasping the real nature of the threat that we face.

I don’t pretend to understand the microbiology or organic chemistry that makes it tick, but COVID-19 is a simple organism. It’s a tiny package of enzymes and molecules. Until and unless it mutates, every virus particle is absolutely identical. Yet the myriad copies seem to act like a powerful “system” that can travel the globe, infect and take over untold hosts and bring countries and societies to their knees.

To illustrate the point, lets examine another system where simple objects, with simple behaviors, multiply and form an amazing behavioral system. Scientists call these “self-organizing systems” and they are at least a level more sophisticated than the COVID pandemic.

Foraging ants.

I’m not an myrmecologist, so I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of ant society, but ant colonies are wonders of organization. For example, there’s a critical system in the ant world that’s been studied by scientists and logistics experts … the way ants organize their foraging activities.

Adam G. Hart. Carl Anderson & Francis L. Ratnieks
Task partitioning in leafcutting ants. August 2002, acta ethologica 5(1):1-11

In the study cited above, the authors found that the impressive foraging behavior of leaf cutting ants can be explained by a few simple rules:

  • If an ant doesn’t have a food item, it goes out to find it and bring it back
  • At encounters, bigger ants take food items from smaller ants

At the start of the day, all of the ants spread out, leaving pheromone trails behind for others to follow. As the day goes on, the activity settles into the pattern shown in the diagram.

  • Big, fast ants follow the well-trod pheromone trails, but they soon encounter smaller ants with food items. They grab them and scoot home where they dump their load, turn around and go out again.
  • Middling ants follow the trails and grab food from smaller ants. Their cargo is soon hijacked by bigger ants so they turn around to seek more.
  • Small ants are always getting their load stolen, so they stay out at the end of the chain, continually scouting for new sources of food.

The pattern is often termed a “bucket brigade”. It divides the work fairly according to the ability of each ant and guarantees that no ant is ever idle. It’s so efficient and easy to teach that factory managers adopt it for tricky product assembly processes. It looks like a genius is orchestrating a complex ballet, but it’s really the inevitable result of millions of really dumb ants applying a few simple rules.

COVID is a virus … but the pandemic is human

The Coronavirus is far simpler even than foraging ants. It operates by just one rule:

  • It exists until it dies

Once created, all virus particles will eventually fall apart and deactivate. Before then, if one happens to encounter a human respiratory tract cell, it may bind to a protein receptor.

From that point, the host body does all the work. The virus is absorbed into the cell, breaks apart, and unloads its RNA. The absorbed COVID RNA re-programs the host cell to make and release LOTS of copies. The host may breathe, cough or sneeze the copies into its surroundings. These rules apply in China, America, Italy, Brazil, Iran and everywhere else. Absent a mutation, there’s not the tiniest bit of variation or difference.

When you break it down, the disease and its progress are due to the individual hosts’ immune system interacting with the life behaviors in surrounding human society. The relevant geography is wherever we happen to live and if we want to stop the pandemic, we have to focus on our‘ biology and our local behavior.

CapabilityExistAbsorb virus
Replicate it
Sneeze, cough, breathe,
Attack with immune system etc.
Exchange Items
Leave Traces
Kill itBlock absorption
Block replication
Control immune response
Lessen Symptoms
Reduce Contacts
Clean Surfaces
Mechanism?Vaccine and/or drugsChange Societal Behavior

I doubt we will ever eradicate the virus itself.

In the medium term, we may find drugs or vaccines to get our bodies to stop the deadly response … but we need to be careful. Our bodies are genuinely complex systems and it’s easy to mess up one part while trying to fix another.

Short term, our only protection depends on changes in our behavior. If I’m in a lock down in Atlanta, then its the “American Virus” or perhaps the “Atlanta Virus” … whether the President likes it or not.

It’s even more ironic that there are only a few places on the planet that have proven their ability to make the necessary behavioral changes … and the most advanced is China. If I had the means, I’d consider taking an immediate 3 month vacation in Wuhan, China … now the former home of the “unChinese” Virus.