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COVID-19 for Dummies

The laymen’s guide to viruses.

First of all, this article is meant to explain COVID-19 and how it is similar and different from other viruses into a simple report that people can relate to.  There is so much noise out there about COVID and I thought I’d add some more!  But hopefully every little bit of unbiased information is helpful to people.  And by unbiased I mean, I don’t have any affiliation with politics, Big Pharma or any other reason to make up false information or statistics.  So hopefully that helps me explain this stuff a little better and be trusted a little more than main stream media, which is either filled with idiots or people with an agenda based on what I’ve heard some of them say.

Before you say “Who the heck are you to comment on COVID?”, let me admit right upfront that I am not a doctor and certainly not an epidemiologist.  But I did study Biology and minored in Genetics in university and have kept up a high level of interest in genetic modification.  Now a days, “genetically modified” is a couple bad words when strung together, but when I studied it in university it was an emerging science that was going to allow for the potential riddance of poverty and starvation.  And, well, whether you like it or not, it has gone a long ways down the road to doing just that.  If we didn’t have genetically modified fruits, vegetables, grains and even meat there would be almost no possibility to feed the world’s population today.  And you may say “I would never eat genetically modified food!”  Well, sorry sunshine, you do every day.  You may be able to avoid pesticide and herbicide laden foods and eat organic foods, but you can’t avoid GMO foods.  For example, when’s the last time you had an apple?  Or anything made from corn or oats or just about anything you can name?  Today’s apple was engineered.  Big shiny red apples never existed naturally.  They were bred and genetically modified to be like they are today.  You’d have to travel back in time to the 1800’s to have a non GMO apple.  And what I’m about to say probably makes me seem evil to most of the readers of this article, but just a couple weeks ago I made E. Coli bacteria glow in the dark!  That’s right, in my home lab (aka kitchen), I spliced the DNA that controls its ability to “glow” from a bioluminescent algae into the bacteria commonly referred to as E. Coli (a natural bacteria found in your intestines) and made the bacteria glow!  I tell you that so you understand that I am not a complete neophyte in genetics.  I’ve also made bi-plane fruit flies, that is, flies that have two levels of wings… and other fun stuff!  So yes, my hobby is being a mad scientist!

So having established, or not, my bizarre credentials, let me divulge my two cents on this latest COVID virus and a few things about it that you may or may not know or find interesting.

Oh, and I realize that many people out there do not believe COVID even exists.  But I’d just say, it’s ok to believe it exists and still feel that governments over reacted or conveniently used it for whatever purpose they may have.  I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion of the viruses mortality rate or even if it is the cause of people getting sick, but to deny its existence is a bit extreme to me.  To suggest it’s mortality rate is likely much, much lower than it is reported to be is not ridiculous, since it’s highly likely many people that got it never reported it at all.  That would completely invalidate the stats on mortality rates since the higher the number of cases the lower the mortality rate.  And for people to suggest that having almost zero cases of the seasonal flu reported this last year means that everything was reported as COVID is also entirely plausible.  Although an equally valid argument can be made that the same preventative measures that were supposed to knock down the spread of COVID also knocked down the spread of the seasonal flu.  The reality is we will never know the true number of cases or mortality rate.  But for the purposes of this article let’s at least imagine that COVID in fact is a new strain of the SARS Corona virus.  By the way, new strains of viruses are happening daily, well, actually hourly or every minute.  New strains of viruses and bacteria happen constantly from mutations.  Almost all mutations result in viruses that don’t survive but every once in a while you get a new strain and it has slightly different characteristics and that’s happening all the time.  Fortunately only rarely do they affect us.

The first thing let’s look at is the difference between COVID and the regular seasonal flu.  This question seems to come up a lot and I’ve heard just about every possible poor answer out there.  In my opinion, and it’s not so humble so I didn’t say that, the complete chaotic handling of the COVID pandemic could have been avoided if governments had just been truthful and accurate about the virus from the beginning as we learned about it.  But if you mix year long lock downs with economic destruction and taking away of people’s freedoms with the same people not really seeing the impact of the virus, you get understandable divisiveness and rioting and all the other crap that’s hitting the fan right now.  Said another way, if you take people’s freedoms and livelihood away from them but many of them don’t even know someone who’s had COVID, never mind died from it, what should we expect to happen?!  If a third of the population had died from COVID then people would request lockdowns and not fight them.  By the way, MERS, which is another Corona virus that caused an outbreak in 2012 in the Middle East, had roughly a 34% mortality rate.  That is, if you got MERS, you had a one in three chance of dying.   That is a virus that would warrant a potential lockdown in my opinion.  But when the mortality rate from COVID-19 is less than 2%, I think it’s understandable that many people believe the reaction to the pandemic was worse than the pandemic itself.

So, what is a virus?  Both COVID and Influenza (The Flu) are different types of viruses.  They have a lot in common but some things that are quite different too.  One of the challenging things is that they cause very similar symptoms. So symptomatically it’s difficult to easily identify which one you may have.  There are some differences though, for example, the regular strains of influenza do not make you lose taste or smell but at least some COVID patients report this to be a symptom.  There are some other key differences too.  The Flu spreads faster.  But according to current statistics, it appears as though COVID is more dangerous.  Another analogy I like to use is that The Flu is like an airplane and COVID-19 is like a car.  They’ll both get you places but the airplane is faster (spreads faster) and being in a car is a little more dangerous (COVID has a slightly overall higher mortality rate).  The Flu affects kids and adults of all ages and can be deadly at any age.  COVID-19 appears to have almost no impact on children that get infected and has by far the largest impact on elderly people with co-morbidities (other health issues that make them more vulnerable and less able to handle a virus infection).  So, if you look at cross sections of the population, for example healthy people under 50 years old, the Flu is far more dangerous.  But if you look at people over 70 with health issues, COVID-19 is much more dangerous to them.

The first thing to note is viruses are not bacteria.  So they can’t be treated with antibiotics.  Penicillin and other antibiotics have no impact on a virus.  The best analogy I can think of to describe a virus, and you’ll discover in this article that I’m the king of analogies, is to imagine a beach ball that has a bunch of hypodermic needles sticking out of it.  Viruses are uber simple beings.  They really can be imagined to be a hypodermic needle and they even act like one.  When they bump into a cell in your body they literally stick into it (or realistically bind to it).  Sometimes you’ll hear scientists talk about the spike or spike protein when talking about the vaccines, but we’ll talk about vaccines later in this article.  That spike is the needle part of the virus and it’s what “punctures” your cells.  It also is made of protein and proteins are made up of amino acids and when those are strung together they also make up the blueprint code of DNA and RNA that makes you unique.  So when you hear the term “spike protein” it’s referring to the material that your body can recognize on the needle part of the virus.  So, when this spike/needle punctures your cell, the virus injects its own DNA into your cell.  I won’t go into how cell division works and how DNA and RNA work together to replicate the cells in your body, you can go find your old 12th grade biology text for that!  But what basically happens is your cell is fooled into thinking that the virus’ DNA strand that it shot into your cell is something that your body should make copies of.   Basically your cell is hijacked and your own cell starts making more viruses, copying the viruses DNA over and over.  Your cells become virus factories!  So, you can see how it is difficult for your immune system to fight something like that because first it has to recognize that the virus is actually not part of you.  And that isn’t easy if your own cells are making it.

This hyper production of viruses is happening in your body over a short period of time and a key point is when your body recognizes this virus thing isn’t supposed to be there.  That’s when your immune system kicks in and figures out a way to recognize it.  The way it does this is by “learning” some part of its DNA strand that makes it unique.  DNA that is in the nucleus of every cell in your body, is made up of molecules called amino acids.  There are four types of these acids used as the building blocks for DNA.  They are nicknamed A, C, T, G for the first letters in their name, adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T).  All of the DNA that makes you who you are is stored in every cell of your body regardless of whether that cell is in your stomach, your eyeball or toe.  The order of these letters is the code that makes your eyes blue, your hair brown, etc.  For example, let’s say that the code string of letters for blue eyes is AAGTCAGG on some strand of DNA in your cell’s nucleus.  Someone with brown eyes might have the gene that has the code AAGGCAGG on it and that one single change of the code makes an entirely different color of eyes.  It’s pretty fascinating really!

Let’s get back to the virus.  Let’s say the protein that makes up the COVID viruses spike (remember the needle part of the beach ball) has a code of TTGCA.  Maybe that’s the part that your body eventually recognizes as foreign or maybe it’s another code for a different part of the virus.  But ultimately, your immune system will recognize some part of the viruses code and seek out to destroy it.  The immune system is an amazing thing, but sometimes it also can be a bit of a drama queen!  That is, it can over react.  It may fire up the internal stove and make your body temperature go way up (create a fever) seeing if that will help kill the virus.  Or swell up and add a lot of mucous to lung cells to prevent easy entry by more viruses.  But a high fever can kill you or at least damage your organs if it’s too high for too long.  And reactions by your lungs can lead to viral or bacterial pneumonia.  There are a lot of reactions your body may have but some of them aren’t always helpful and in fact can make things much worse.  In the case of COVID, the data seems to show that it’s not the virus itself that causes people to die, it’s almost always pneumonia.  When you get pneumonia your lungs can’t exchange oxygen from the air into your blood very well and what happens is your blood oxygen level begins to drop.  If it drops too far your organs begin shutting down.  Ultimately, that is almost always why people die from COVID-19.  It’s not the virus directly that kills people, it’s the inability to get oxygen into their blood because of pneumonia, which really was triggered because of your immune system’s over response to the disease.  People that get the disease but don’t get sick or only a little bit sick, generally have an immune system that didn’t go into drama queen mode and their body stayed healthy enough to fight the virus and destroy it.  So, contrary to the main stream media’s demonization of anti viral medications and treatments that focus on fighting the pneumonia while your body deals with the virus, those treatments work!  My wife, who is a doctor, just went through having COVID along with almost everyone in her immediate family!  Thankfully everyone made it through it.  But I firmly believe that was because, like me, my wife believes that the key is to keep an infected persons blood oxygen level as high as possible, use anti-viral medicines that have been proven over decades to be very effective in helping your body’s immune system fight viruses and then weather the storm as best as possible.  The bottom line, if the person who is infected with COVID-19 can keep their blood oxygen level up, they are almost guaranteed to live and their body will fight off and become immune to the virus, at least for some period of time while the antibodies (the guardians that watch for that same virus showing up again) continue to be produced by your body.

Please note, the following statement is my personal opinion based on the data I’ve seen and in no way is based on anything more than speculation.  I believe that healthy young people who did die from COVID were treated improperly.  It appears as though many cases where healthy people died from COVID it was when they were also intubated.  Intubation is when, generally as an extreme measure, a tube is stuck down into your trachea (the windpipe tube to your lungs) to provide oxygen directly rather than using an oxygen mask.  There are two issues I have with intubation.  One is that any time you stick foreign things inside your body you increase the chance of infections.  And two, intubation is a delicate procedure that requires extreme caution on the amount of pressure the oxygen is pumped into your lungs with.  It is extremely easy to over pressurize the tubes to the point of rupturing your very sensitive oxygen exchanging alveoli lung cells.  My personal belief is that, as sad as it seems, many people who died from COVID-19 that were intubated actually died from improper intubation. I read nurses accounts of many cases where the hospitals were so busy that interns were doing the intubation procedures and heavily over pressurizing the settings because they didn’t know better.  They may have inadvertently done the damage that killed an otherwise healthy patient who would have recovered if he had been treated properly.  Again, that is pure speculation though, so let’s get back to the facts!

Let’s talk a bit about vaccines.  Nothing in the last year has caused more division among people it seems than whether one should be vaccinated or not.  Let’s try to keep this discussion to the facts and not make it political!  The first fact is, properly made vaccines work.  For example, almost no one gets polio anymore because the vaccines wiped out the disease almost entirely from the civilized world.  In the early days, vaccines were made with what amounts to a weakened version of the actual virus.  That is, a bunch of beat up viruses (obviously that’s a simplification) are injected into a person and their immune system figured out it’s a foreigner and combats it effectively since it doesn’t have the strength to actually cause the disease.  At least not normally.  There are of course are cases where a weakened virus was strong enough to actually give the vaccinated person the disease.  But this was rare enough to be easily outweighed by the threat of the virus itself.  Over time scientists got better and better at weakening the viruses so this became less of an issue.  And then one day some seriously smart scientist came up with the idea of using mRNA strands as the vaccine.  It’s actually a great idea although it too has had some bad press over the past year.  But without diving into the details of how tRNA (transfer RNA) and mRNA (messenger RNA) work, let’s just say they are the factory workers who make the copies of DNA so your cells can divide and refresh your body cells.  So when you get an mRNA spike protein vaccine what you are really getting is a shot that has the building block strand of the spike (we said it was TTGCA in our example above) and that’s it.  So the vaccine can not give you the disease because it’s not giving you a weakened version of the disease, it’s only giving you a strand of the code that makes up the virus.  Here comes another one of my world famous crappy analogies!  Let’s say you didn’t want baseball players (they represent the virus) on your yard.  So you taught your pit bull guard dog (your immune system) that it should attack baseball gloves.  For weeks you rewarded your dog every time it attacked a baseball glove.  Your dog doesn’t know that the baseball player is the ultimate target, it doesn’t even know what a baseball player looks like.  But it’s learned to hate baseball gloves!  So, unfortunately for the next baseball player in uniform and wearing his glove steps into your yard!  Your dog is going to rip off his glove if not his whole arm making him a useless baseball player.  This is how the mRNA vaccines work.  They never introduce the actual virus into your body like in the early days, they only train your body to recognize a part of the virus.  In the case of the COVID-19 viruses it is generally the spike/needle part.  The moment the virus enters your body it is attacked because your immune system knows it’s a foreigner immediately.  So the virus doesn’t get the head start it would have had if your body had to figure it out first.  That is why, when infected with the actual virus, after being vaccinated, your body has a much better chance of becoming less sick or not noticeably sick at all.  Of course, nothing is perfect and some people’s immune systems didn’t get the memo, and didn’t create the proper antibodies to recognize and destroy the spikes on the virus that the vaccine was supposed to warn them about.  But in general mRNA vaccines make logical sense.  Of course if a variant mutation of the virus occurs and the spike changes a bit, your body won’t recognize it and the vaccine will have been useless against the variant.  But if the virus mutated but kept the same spikes then your body will destroy it because it recognized the spikes.  So that’s why the vaccine works against some variants but not others.

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Now having said that, I am perfectly empathetic with people who don’t want to be vaccinated by a trial vaccine.  In theory, the mRNA vaccines make sense and should be safe.  But there just hasn’t been enough history of this one to have any data supporting their safety.  So anyone saying they are perfectly safe just can’t say that.  Because no one knows yet.  The odds are very slim that there could be any long term adverse effects, but the odds are not zero.

Let’s tackle another highly debated topic with just the facts.  Masks!  This one is quite simple and feel free to take the facts and apply them to yourself and your family as you see fit.

If COVID-19 was an airborne virus it would be bad.  But fortunately it’s not, it can only travel from one person to another in liquid.  That is, to get it you have to kiss someone with it or they would have to sneeze or cough on you and the droplets would have to land on your eye, nose or mouth or be quickly transferred there.  And viruses are small.  Almost all the masks people use today are made of materials that have space between them far bigger than the virus.  Someone said it was like throwing sand at a chain link fence, some of the grains will hit the fence but 99.9% will pass right through.  Having said that, the masks do stop a fair amount of the droplets.  So if you cough with a mask on, other than the droplets that blow out the sides of the mask, at least most of the direct forward droplets would hit the mask and stop.  But if a droplet of someone’s spit lands on your mask and it contains the virus, the moment you inhale and the droplet evaporates, you are sucking those viruses right through and it’s like you aren’t wearing a mask at all.  So in practicality, the masks DO help prevent someone who has COVID-19 from spreading it to some degree.  Whatever droplets we’re stopped from potentially spraying onto someone by the mask was helpful.  But it in no way prevents you from getting COVID from someone else because if someone sneezes on your mask, you may just as well not be wearing one because you’re sucking those babies in as if the mask didn’t exist.  So I’m not saying masks are useless, just that they only prevent someone who already has the disease from spreading it but doesn’t do anything for people that don’t have it.  But since we may be carrying the viruses without knowing it there is an argument for wearing one.  Personally I hate the masks and because I have to travel a lot I have had 37 COVID tests as of the writing of this article and they have all been negative.  So I really hate wearing them.  But I do understand that at some point I could be a carrier so I follow the rules like a good little boy.  But at some point we either trust the vaccines are effective or we don’t and we need to drop the masks and become human again.  Personally I prefer the countries that don’t have mask mandates like Nicaragua and spend as much time as I can there.  There the government decided to let people make their own personal choice on wearing masks.  If you want to you can, if you don’t want to you don’t have to.  When I’m in Nicaragua I don’t wear a mask because if people want to protect themselves from me then just don’t hang out with me.  And if I’m in a meeting, where others are concerned about it, I will put a mask on during the meeting out of respect for them and for the possibility I have contracted the disease and they can’t willingly avoid me!

Finally, one last point I’d like to make about viruses in general that may help you sleep at night.  Viruses are everywhere and mutate to create new strains constantly.  But being a successful virus is hard!  Viruses are parasites and they need a host to be successful.  If the virus kills the host then it ultimately dies out too. Especially if it kills the host too quickly before it can spread to a new host.  That’s why extremely deadly viruses like Ebola are actually somewhat more easily contained and have never had global outbreaks.  As sick as it sounds, the virus is too deadly too quickly to be truly successful.  It kills its hosts before they can often even come in contact with someone else for the virus to hop onto.  Viruses don’t think, they have no brain, they just accidentally mutate.  Something, such as radiation or some other factor, causes one strain to mutate and almost every time the mutation makes the virus unviable, aka it dies. Once in a while though a mutation results in a version (strain) that is more deadly or spreads more easily or goes from droplet to airborne, etc.  But it’s just as likely that the new strain, if it survives the mutation, will be less harmful, not spread as easily or the best option for us would be if a new strain had little or no impact on the health of humans but had enough similarities to the existing strains that it helped us to teach our immune system about it.  That is, if a harmless mutation version that had the same spike on it as COVID-19 became transmitted in an airborne manner, it could spread through the entire global population and basically immunize all of humanity against any strain with that same spike.  In fact, a human version of that could potentially be built…but let’s not give Wuhan any ideas, I think they’ve done enough for one century!

Patrick Hiebert

Partner – EcoVillages
Designers of amazing eco-sensible, sustainable communities
…and part time weird science guy!

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