If a post doesn’t have the author’s name, don’t share it.
There’s a new post that’s gone more viral than SARS-CoV-2. It doesn’t include dangerous misinformation, just lousy science. People keep tagging me to respond, so here goes. Had one of my former students written it on a test, I’d have given a few points but overall a D. (But then I’d work with the student until I was sure they understood the concepts, and they’d end with an A.)
“It has to do with RNA sequencing…. I.e. genetics.”
RNA sequencing is a technique used to look more closely at RNA. It’s complicated and not a factor in understanding these diseases.
‘Seasonal flu is an “all human virus.”’
Flu viruses infect birds, pigs, humans, seals, cattle and goats.
“DNA/RNA chains that make up the virus are recognized by the human immune system. This means that your body has some immunity to it before it comes around each year…”
Perhaps the author tried to simplify it so much they muddled the facts.
Influenza is an RNA virus (not DNA). Flu viruses circulate every year but the actual strain may differ each year. If it’s a strain that has circulated before, many humans will have immunity to that strain. If it’s a new strain, we’re susceptible. Sometimes a new flu strain has similarities to a previous one, and an individual may have some immunity to it. In the H1N1 Pandemic of 2009, young adults and children were most vulnerable to the disease, whereas people over 65 were less likely to get sick. This is possibly because they were exposed to a similar strain when they were younger. For young adults this was a completely foreign flu strain and they had no immunity.
Here’s where the genetics come in.
We get new flu strains often because the RNA genome is segmented. The segments can re-assort when the viruses are copying themselves. Influenza A strains can infect humans, birds, and pigs. When one human, bird, or pig has strains from different animals, the virus can swap segments. This leads to a new virus strain with new antigens on the surface, which is new to the immune system. These novel viruses have led to three pandemics in the 20th Century: 1918 (H1N1 of avian origin), 1957 (H2N2), and 1968 (H3N2) and one in 2009 (H1N1pdm09).
The next portion is just very muddled:
“Now, here comes this Coronavirus… it existed in animals only, for nobody knows how long…but one day, at an animal market, in Wuhan China, in December 2019, it mutated and made the jump from animal to people. At first, only animals could give it to a person… But here is the scary part…. in just TWO WEEKS it mutated again and gained the ability to jump from human to human. Scientists call this quick ability, ‘slippery’”
There are at least seven coronaviruses that are known to infect humans. These include the viruses that cause SARS and MERS, which are deadly. There are also four very common ones that produce only mild illness. SARS-CoV-2 likely existed in bats and/or pangolins for a long time.
It’s the “one day it mutated and jumped” and “in just TWO WEEKS it mutated again” bits that make scientists go squicky. This attempt at simplification ignores the fact that we don’t actually know what happened. Scientists who have studied the viral genome have proposed two possibilities:
1. The current virus evolved naturally in bats. A mutation allowed it to be transmitted from person to person. So the “novel” virus lived in the bats for awhile. Then a person in close contact with a bat got infected. No direct bat-human interaction has been verified, so a third host may have been involved. We do know that SARS-CoV-1 and MERS came directly from animals to humans.
If this happened, that means the virus was already adapted to humans and the epidemic would spread rapidly.
2. The virus existed in pangolins and “jumped” into humans. It would have to be already infectious to humans, but probably very mild. If that happened, it’s been hanging around in humans for awhile with no one noticing it. Then another mutation occurred that made the virus deadly. There really is no way to know the timing of this, and it wasn’t ONE DAY then magically two weeks later it mutated in one step. It likely happened over a longer period of time, as mutations do.
“…And, it’s already mutated AGAIN, so that we now have two strains to deal with, strain s, and strain L….which makes it twice as hard to develop a vaccine”
They argue that the L and S strains are 99.993% identical. These differences should not make it harder to develop a vaccine. As the Yale scientists in the CNN article note, “Using the idea of mutation to incite fear is harmful, especially in the midst of an epidemic like COVID-19.”
I mean, if you want to convince people to take COVID-19 seriously, go ahead. But please use accurate science to do so, or share an already established site explaining flu vs. COVID-19. There are many.
*I try to avoid using Wikipedia sources, but linked one on RNA sequencing is extensive.
*This is much longer than I’d like it to be, but there was so much to cover…
Final note, as incorrect posts go, this wasn’t bad. It didn’t give bad advice. It is important though, that if we’re going to share science, we do so accurately. The public receiving junk science is a lot of why we’re in the situation we’re in today. This matters when addressing climate change, vaccines, nutrition and so many other issues in our world.