The Crown

Every few years, a new pox comes around to remind us we are mere mortals.

Two groups of disease agents concern humans most—bacteria, which have been known for far longer and are better understood, and viruses.

This is not to say that humans are not susceptible to other attackers—fungi are a case in point, and when it comes to other parasites, we have plenty—including single-celled organisms such as protozoa, as well as sizable creatures like flatworms.

Current estimates are that less than half of our body is made up of human cells, such as heart, skin, or liver. The other fifty-seven percent is foreign, and largely constitutes what health and wellness sites, supermarkets, and dietary gurus love to call the microbiome.

In terms of scale, if we average out world population, including children, to a weight of fifty-five pounds, or twenty-five kilograms each, eight billion people carry a weight of two hundred million metric tons, of which over half—one hundred fourteen million—is not us.

In the last decade, scientists have uncovered some fascinating stuff about our microbiome. The reduction of bacterial infections over the last seventy-five years due to the discovery of antibiotics has been remarkable—but in destroying the bacteria that do us harm, we also attack those that help us live—as a result, allergies have increased hugely.

Obesity has also been linked to the bacteria in your gut—a diet of burgers and fries promotes the presence of microbes that increase obesity, whereas a ‘lean’ microbiome can have the opposite effect.

Bacteria are like love—can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

Viruses, on the other hand, are the dark side.

Although Pasteur discovered a vaccine for rabies, he didn’t understand what caused it. One of his assistants, Edouard Chamberland, patented a filter that retained bacteria and several scientists subsequently showed that diseases could still be transmitted after all bacteria were removed—whatever was responsible, passed through the filter.

Sea cucumbers, one of many exotic dishes I’ve eaten in China through the years.

Viruses are obligate parasites, meaning they only thrive inside the host. Some of the most interesting and nasty virus infections in recent memory, such as AIDS, SARS, and Ebola, have been associated with transmission from other animals to Man—the current spread of coronavirus is more of the same.

I’ll be in southeast Asia within a week, at which point the disease will have spread considerably—right now, it’s showing up in Thailand, South Korea and Singapore—so I have a personal interest in monitoring this particular epidemic.

AIDS originated in chimps, as a similar virus to HIV called SIV (for Simian). Not in the 1960s or 1970s, but one hundred years ago, in the 1920s. The crossover to humans is linked to consumption of these animals by Congolese tribes.

Likewise, Ebola, SARS, and now the new coronovirus are diet-related. Let’s face it, we are what we eat.

Ebola was linked to apes (and possibly bats), and SARS to bats. Bird flu, which was around a few years ago, was linked to ducks, geese, and chickens—all mainstays of Guangdong cuisine.

The new virus was first detected a few weeks ago in a food market in the city of Wuhan, once the capital of the Kuomintang—based on previous experience, that means it’s been around considerably longer.

When the phrase ‘food market’ is used in the West, it conjures up images of clean buildings, hygienic produce, and a wholesome family experience.

In the East, it is something very different. Every Chinese town has live food markets where an assortment of animals are kept in cages until sold to restaurants and households. Every Chinese restaurant of any standing will have fish and shellfish in aquariums—whereas in Southern Europe there may be one large tank containing lobsters, crabs, and the occasional bag of oysters, in China, individual species are kept in their own tanks—it’s not unusual to see twenty or thirty separate aquariums.

The live food market where the coronavirus epidemic is believed to have started stocked the usual range of crazy stuff, including porcupines, turtles, and crocodiles, as well as bugs, frogs, scorpions, and many kinds of seafood—snails, crabs, shrimp, fish, sea cucumbers, abalone, and geoduck will have been featured.

Apart from all the transport restrictions in mainland China, and now also in xiāng găng—the fragrant port of Hong-Kong—the sixty million dollar question is: which animal did this virus jump from?

And if you don’t know what a geoduck is, what better way to usher in the Chinese New Year?

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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