Al Stahler: Fighting off the virus |

Al Stahler: Fighting off the virus

The corona — "crown" — of spikes allows the COVID virus to enter human cells. The spikes are the target of many of the body's antibodies.
Photo by Alissa Eckert, MSMI; Dan Higgins, MAMS

The next-to-last thing a virus wants to do is make you sick … much less, make you dead. If you’re dead, you cannot spread the virus.

That’s next-to-last … the last thing a virus wants is to end its own existence.

Talking about what the virus wants … it’s as if the virus had a brain. But viruses do not have brains. Viruses are not even alive.

But viruses have been around close to four billion years. Four billion years is time enough – even for something that’s not alive – to get really, really good at doing what it does.

How can something that’s not alive … get good at something? When we pick up a rock, and then let it drop, we might say that rock “wants” to fall, down to the ground. What that brainless rock is doing, of course, is simply following the laws of the universe … it’s responding to gravity.

Put that rock on the side of a hill, and the rock “wants” to slide down to the bottom. But the rock will only make it a short way before it smashes into other rocks, and stops.

Every time it hits another rock, though, our rock loses some of its roughness: Its sharp edges, its bumps, get knocked off. The rock gets smoother as it slides down … and a smoother rock is better at sliding down. If the rock slides long enough … say, it’s sliding down a river channel, pushed along by the water … eventually, that rock will wear down – not just smooth – but round. It becomes a smooth, round river-rock. And smooth, round rocks are really good at – not just sliding – but rolling downhill.

No brain, no life in that rock. But just following the laws of the universe, that rock got really good at getting downhill.

A virus is also shaped by time … not shaped smooth, or round, but shaped to fit nicely into a jig-saw puzzle … a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle.

Let me describe a 3D jig-saw puzzle: It’s laundry day … you pull the sheet off the bed, and scrunch it up in your arms. Now, before you toss that sheet into the washer, look at the shape you’ve created. The scrunched-up sheet bulges out in some places, has gaps in others. Think of that sculpted sheet as a jig-saw puzzle – a three-dimensional jig-saw puzzle – missing just a couple of pieces.

OK, now scrunch up your pillowcase … but don’t scrunch it up at random. Scrunch it up carefully – shape it – so it’s got a bulge here … a gap there … in just the right places, so it fits, like a piece in a jig-saw puzzle, into your scrunched-up sheet. Bulges and gaps in one fit gaps and bulges in the other.

Our bodies are filled with gazillions of 3D jig-saw puzzles: The pieces fit together, just right, to make muscle, and bone, and brain. Jig-saw puzzles allow parts of our bodies to talk to each other. Hormones come in different shapes, shape that fit jig-saw puzzles in different organs … each specially-shaped hormone carries a different message.

Our genes use jig-saw puzzles, to tell our bodies how to grow, make repairs, make more … of us.

Viruses are rogue genes … rogue pieces of jig-saw puzzle. Viruses plug their pieces into our jig-saw puzzles … give our bodies instructions … and thus hijack our bodies. The rogue instructions set us to work, making more viruses.

Viruses have plagued earth-life for four billion years … and, like the rock, bumping its way downhill, viruses have been shaped, in those billions of years … shaped to fit nicely into our bodies’ jig-saw puzzles.

Life has lived on earth as long as viruses have existed. In those nearly four billion years, we – living things – have adapted to these freeloaders. Just recently – less than half-a-billion years ago … back when primitive fish were the most highly-evolved animals on the planet – one of our great-, great-, bazillion-times great-ancestors … acquired an immune system … an immune system that turns the jig-saw puzzle game back on the viruses. Our immune system makes jig-saw puzzle pieces that fit into the virus’s jig-saw puzzle, allowing us to attack – and destroy – the virus.

Problem solved? Not quite.

When Alice peers a bit too closely into her mirror – into her looking-glass – she falls through … into a very strange land. At one point, she finds herself running beside the Red Queen, both of them running as fast as they possibly could … just to keep up in the race. If they wanted to get ahead, they’d have to run even faster than that.

So we are in a race with the virus … with the gazillions of viruses that outnumber every living thing on the planet.

In an attempt to run just slightly faster … we jab ourselves with vaccines. Vaccines don’t fight germs … they give our immune system a heads-up – what to watch out for. But the virus is ready for that.

Crumpling up that sheet in our arms … suppose we cut out a piece, and replaced it with a different fabric – canvas, maybe, or leather. Or suppose we cut out a hole, and didn’t replace the fabric with anything. These changes would change how the sheet crumples up.

Even as viral genes tell our bodies exactly how to build the next generation of viruses, the virus is experimenting … what would happen if we used a different amino acid here … or cut a couple of aminos out entirely? The new virus would come together in a slightly different shape … a shape, the virus “hopes,” that can evade our immune system … perhaps get around the heads-up from the vaccine.

These slightly-differently-shaped viruses are “variants.”

A study released by the journal Nature, this Monday, found that the variant first seen in the UK seems likely to be held in control by current treatments. The variants seen in south Africa, and more recently, in Brazil, are more troubling.

Current vaccines appear less effective against the South African and Brazilian variants. The authors advocate continued vaccination, against the original virus, to prevent the appearance of yet more variants.

Vaccination, again, is only a heads-up … it presumes a strong immune system … kept strong by sleep … exercise … healthful food.

Al Stahler enjoys sharing science and nature with friends and neighbors in The Union and on KVMR-FM. He teaches classes for both kids and grown-ups, and can be reached at

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