COVID-19 Insights from OIST - Understanding the threat

The new coronavirus COVID-19 has inflicted a global health emergency.

There are physical steps we can all take to reduce its spread and protect human lives. But the fightback is also greatly strengthened by society’s understanding of infectious diseases.

How could a virus jump boundaries between species, and infect humans with such devastating effect?

Knowing the answers to questions like these can help humankind prevent future episodes. For this reason, in the period ahead, I will be writing a series of articles, together with colleagues at OIST, to widen awareness here in Okinawa.

Our lives are intimately linked with microbes

The history of human life, for good or ill, is intertwined with micro-organisms.

Without them, we would cease to exist. There are 37 trillion cells in our bodies. The same number of bacteria in our gut help us digest the food we eat in order to survive.

Life on earth has always included microbes. Viruses also emerged at an early stage in the evolution of life. And epidemics and pandemics are recorded throughout human history.

Smallpox, for example, caused by the Variola virus, was detected in 3000 year-old Egyptian mummies. Papyrus paintings from the age of the Pharaohs depict infectious disease like poliomyelitis, caused by the Polio virus.

Here in Japan, the smallpox epidemic of the Tenpyo Era, from 735 to 737, killed approximately one third of the Japanese population. Smallpox is debilitating, sometimes fatal, and highly contagious. Less than half a century ago it killed 3 out of every 10 people who became infected. Fortunately, smallpox is no longer considered a threat, thanks to a worldwide immunization effort. It disappeared by 1977 – the only human disease to have been completely eradicated.

In 1918, a strain of influenza known as Spanish Flu caused a global pandemic. It spread rapidly and killed indiscriminately. Young, old, sick, and otherwise healthy people all became infected. At least 10% of patients died. When it struck in Japan, approximately 390,000 patients died from associated pneumonia. Estimates vary on the exact number, but Spanish Flu is thought to have infected around one third of the world's population and killed at least 50 million people. It is the deadliest pandemic in modern history.

Coronaviridea are also ancient. Scientific analysis suggests they originated 55 million years ago, and they are closely associated with the evolution of bats and birds. Indeed, many human coronaviruses seem to have their origin in bats.

The new coronavirus COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan in December last year, and has since spread globally. As of April 28, 2020 according to publicly available data, more than 3 million cases have been reported across 185 countries, resulting in more than 216,000 deaths. No end to the pandemic is in sight.

In our hyper-connected, twenty-first century world, it has been easier than ever for viruses to spread. And how a virus multiplies, and infects others, will be the topic of the next article.

By Dr. Peter Gruss, President/CEO, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)

The Japanese translation of this article was published on May 3, 2020 in the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper under the title "新型コロナOISTによる洞察 微生物と密接に関わる人間の命 脅威を正しく理解する".