Cordyceps, Zoonotic Transmission & Pandemics
How microbes threaten to wipe us out
[TL;DR The fungus zombie apocalypse is highly improbable,
however watch out for new viral/bacterial pandemics]
A genus of the Ascomycota-Fungi kingdom, Cordyceps contains 600 different species discovered to date. Some of these species have a parasitic relationship with insects and control their minds through rudimentary chemical signaling.
The show “The Last of Us” imagines a world where a species of fungi has evolved to infect humans. While this is a scary thought the likelihood of this is negligible as our nervous/immune systems are exponentially more complex.
There are much more prominent dangers like viral pandemics. We must keep mutation rates in mind. Fungi are relatively much slower at evolving compared to the likes of virus
There are many bacteria and viruses that evolved to attack the human body with all its complexities. For most of human civilization the norm was widespread disease and parasitization. They dealt with it in their own ways, with limited success, and now we know what really causes many of these infections. Thankfully, virtually most of these diseases have now been eradicated or significantly managed.
The Impact of Penicillin & Antibiotics
These diseases are now non-fatal given antibiotics are prescribed in due time. When we did not have antibiotics these illnesses would maim or kill in the millions of humans.
Bacterium: Mycobacterium leprae
Bacterium: Mycobacterium tubercolosis
Plague (The Black Death)
Bacterium: Yersinia pestis
Bacterium: Rickettsia prowazekii, typhi, tsutsugamushi, spotted fever group
Bacterium: Borellia burgdorferi, mayonii
The Impact of Developed Hygiene Standards
Modern hygiene standards are relatively new in human history. Many developing countries still have some work to do in proper sanitation and hygiene education.
Bacterium: Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter, Shigella
Bacterium: Vibrio cholerae
Hepatitis E virus
The Impact of Vaccines
Many debilitating and incredibly lethal viruses have been eradicated thanks to the work of vaccine research. Some of these viruses still occur in parts of the world but they are generally contained to their local outbreaks.
Hep A/B viruses
H1N1 virus (Influenza A, Spanish flu/Swine flu)
Mosquito Vector Diseases
There are new vaccines for malaria, but there is discussion over mosquito genetic engineering to completely eradicate them once and for all.
West nile virus
Ongoing Epidemics & Pandemics
mRNA technology may be able to eradicate these before the end of this century.
MERS virus (Middle East respiratory syndrome)
Hepatitis C virus
H5N1 virus (Influenza A, Bird flu)
HIV virus (AIDS)
Viruses can be eradicated, but it means the overwhelming majority of the population must receive effective vaccines to wipe it out in one go. However, due to the mutation rates of viruses there could be a new strain that is just different enough to render the vaccine ineffective. Every person a virus infects is another chance of mutation, which means that highly contagious diseases like SARS-CoV-2 end up mutating a lot: which is exactly what we saw with all the different strains.
Most diseases we encounter are shared among fellow mammals and birds.
As we invade more of their territory and exploit them in industrial quantity, there is incredibly high chance for more zoonotic diseases to transfer over.
Here is the thing with SARS-CoV-2. There is evidence that the virus came from a “Novel Coronavirus Lab” in Wuhan. Most likely it was an accidental release, but the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has denied further investigations to save face.
“Fact Sheet: Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology” (U.S. Department of State) → details long history of safety violations
The real concern here is that there is no knowing whether this will happen again in any lab across the world. Humans make mistakes and all it takes is one accident. Alternatively, there may be people with nefarious intents.
The statistics show that pandemics occur on average every ~30 years. This means that in your lifetime there will likely be at least 2 pandemics. We have seen in the past several decades that diseases are emerging more frequently. So in all likelihood expect to live through at least one more pandemic.
When we look at pandemics 2 statistics matter:
Definition: rate of transmissibility per infected
Definition: rate of deaths per infected
For an apocalyptic virus to occur it must have the right blend of a high R number and a high to moderate lethality rate. There are also miscellaneous factors such as whether the virus strikes quickly or is prolonged, if it remains dormant for a time, and other contagious mechanisms resulting in greater transmissibility.
The Perfect Storm
An apocalyptic pandemic may be looming in our near future. I don’t mean to be a fearmonger, but many factors are setting us up for catastrophe:
Exponential rise in transmission rates
Instantaneous worldwide transmission
Incursion into natural habitats that may harbor carriers
Industrialized agriculture & livestock
Unnatural density of crops and animals = easier disease transmission
Increasing hospitable regions for diseases
More infected = more transmission & mutation
Poor quarantine control & response strategy
Artificial viruses and bacteria
Poor safety regulation
Breaches of ethical guidelines
Antibiotic resistance on the rise
MDR-TB: multi-drug-resistant Mycobacterium tubercolosis
MRSA: methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus
VRE: vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus
CRE: carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae
I will elaborate on antibiotic resistance and the solutions we could develop, such as bacteriophage therapy, to face this challenge in another post.
I think that viral pandemics are the real worry. Genetic engineering grows cheaper every year and CRISPR/mRNA technology has enabled rapid genetic innovation. AI will further accelerate experimentation. Bioterrorism is a plausible future scenario so we must prepare for it. It is up to you to decide if you think your government is ready to handle that. Judging by the COVID pandemic many governments showed great weakness. I will elaborate on other posts this year on what you can do as a household to prepare!
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