I originally published When Does a Human Life Begin? 17 Timepoints here at DNA Science in 2013. My intent was to inform…
When Mark Twain wrote “Truth is stranger than fiction,” he wasn’t imagining people watching tales of an alien invasion and a pandemic unfold on their screens while hiding from a real pandemic. For a short span as 2021 became 2022, Apple TV+’s Invasion and HBOMAX’s Station Eleven, each 10 episodes, briefly relieved reality. The first imagines planetary doom, while the second depicts humanity’s recovery two decades after attack by a microscopic menace.
While thinking about both limited series a few days ago, I read a report in Nature that eerily evoked Mark Twain. It presents compelling evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, could change in one tiny but crucial part, in an instant, and transform itself into a pathogen perhaps worse than what we’ve already experienced. That truth would indeed be more terrifying than any fiction.
So here’s a look at all three scenarios: two fiction, one not.
Invasion is a Sci-Fi Mash-Up
Invasion follows the arrival of alien creatures on Earth, through the eyes of four people on different continents and their friends, co-workers, and families. The aliens don’t appear until mid-series. They resemble agile spider-like animals; a review in The Verge describes them as spiked blobs. Although the Rotten Tomatoes rating isn’t stellar, the series has already been renewed.
Invasion borrows from Alien, Invaders From Mars, War of the Worlds, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, the last of which is manifest in the character of Japanese astronaut Hinata, who is marooned in space. She is obsessed with David Bowie. In Episode 9, earthbound space engineer Mitsuki is determined to contact her lover Hinata aboard the doomed Hoshi 12 spacecraft. Mitsuki refuses to believe the video of Hinata being sucked out into space. A computer whiz and linguist, Mitsuki clicks away on a keyboard in the control room at JAXA (the equivalent of NASA), fights off nasty male bosses, and soon she thinks she’s contacted the unfortunate Hinata.
Suddenly Space Oddity blasts! Ground control to Major Tom! (astronaut David Bowman from 2001 and David Bowie, get it?) Surely the booming Bowie must mean that Hinata is still alive and has somehow controlled the aliens and gotten them away from Earth.
That’s what the dawn of the final episode would have us believe, as the earthlings have set off nukes that have seemingly obliterated the spidies, who collapse and fade away. News reports around the globe report the success. It’s finally over! All rejoice! (Can you say Omicron???)
The final scene makes the wait for the alien appearance worthwhile. But season 1 should have ended with “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
Fact not Fiction: A Highly Changeable Virus
The virus that caused SARS in 2003 and 2004 and its COVID-causing cousin belong to subgenus sarbecoviruses of the coronavirus family. They’re so closely related that they can swap parts and reinvent themselves – or mutate on their own.
Both SARS viruses, plus a bunch of bat coronaviruses, bind to our cells at proteins called ACE2 receptors. Exactly how tenaciously the viruses bind determines how quickly infection invades the body and spreads to other people. Comparing mutations can provide hints at how increased transmissibility arises.
In the new article in Nature, “ACE2 binding is an ancestral and evolvable trait of sarbecoviruses,” Tyler N. Starr from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and colleagues describe creating 45 versions of the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein (the part that grabs our cells) and displaying each one on yeast cells. Then they exposed the viral spike bits on the yeast to various proteins to see which would stick, a little like dangling bait to snare fish. If the spike bit binds ACE2 proteins, then that form of the virus can enter our cells.
The team also looked at possible protein binding partners from civets, pangolins, and various bats, from which the coronaviruses arose. The many species that harbor SARS-CoV-2 make possible spillovers from one host species to another that can seed future epidemics and pandemics. And it works both ways. We gave COVID to farmed minks.
The researchers’ findings are disturbing:
1. The ability of the SARS coronaviruses to bind our ACE2 receptors is ancient and ancestral. That is, coronavirus forerunners had it, then lost it, which is why not all of them today bind ACE2. For example, MERS targets a different receptor.
2. Coronaviruses that bind human cells through ACE2 receptors naturally exist outside of China. They’re in Japan and Cambodia and Laos.
3. The tiniest change to the viral spike protein – just a single amino acid difference among its 1273 – can have an outsize effect on how readily the virus invades our cells and what it can do.
The investigators sound the alarm that we should not become complacent. These viruses can be anywhere, they flit easily among species, and they’re constantly changing.
That is, COVID can happen again. Anywhere. And be worse.
In the world that novelist Emily St. John Mandel imagines in her masterpiece Station Eleven, the “Georgia flu” kills 999 of every 1,000 humans in mere days. I read it when it was published in 2015, joining others in the end-of-humanity genre, like Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (nukes), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (meteor strike), and P.D. James’ The Children of Men (pandemic infertility).
Station Eleven takes the narrative of near-extinction two decades forward. Against a landscape in which nature has infiltrated crumbling civilization, bands of human survivors are apparently too few and scattered to have coalesced into any sort of mega society. A troupe of traveling Shakespearean actors keeps the embers of culture burning amidst the devastation, while tattered copies of a graphic novel with ties to the characters contribute a spiritual element.
HBOMAX’s version of Station Eleven is challenging to follow as the threads of time interweave. But it all comes together in the end as separated survivors reconnect and joy and hope for a future reignite.
A virus claiming 999 out of every 1,000 people was unimaginable to me back in 2015, when I read Station Eleven. Now, it isn’t. And that’s my message in this post. Even though mask mandates are being lifted in response to falling numbers of hospitalizations, and even as endemicity ensues, we shouldn’t lose sight of what future mutations, and the variants they assemble into, may bring. Sadly we can’t replace “COVID-19” with just “COVID,” because of what may be in store. Will SARS-CoV-2 return as COVID-24? COVID-31?
Humanity vs SARS-CoV-2 isn’t over. Evolution never is.
Yes, Omicron cases are milder for most. That’s lulled many people into calling them “stealth variants,” or a “natural vaccine,” signaling an end to the horror of the past two years. But it’s not that simple. Despite our clever experiments mimicking and modeling viral goings-on and our algorithms that foresee the tango of mutation and natural selection, we must acknowledge that when it comes to viral evolution, especially that of SARS-CoV-2, anything can happen.
February 12 is Charles Darwin’s birthday. I think he’d agree.