Covid-19 and the Unity-Law
Dr Gregory Farrelly explores the background to thecoronavirus and some implications for theology
For most of us the impact of the current coronavirus pandemic has been unexpected, unwelcome and all-encom passing. We have all become accustomed to the restrictions of lockdown, social distancing, wearing face masks, hand-washing, quarantine, etc. From those who have been inconvenienced by social distancing to those who have lost their lives, everybody has been affected.
Most Catholics have been attending mass online rather than in person, until recently. In fact, some Catholics have been watching daily mass online from those parishes set up for it. In my case, the sermons by Fr. Paolo Bagini of St. Gregory the Great parish in West Ruislip, London have proved a revelation. COVID-19 is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). First identified in Wuhan, China, now more than 20 million cases of infection and more than 700 000 deaths have been reported across most countries,1 although it should not be forgotten that most of those who die of COVID 19 have pre-existing (underlying) conditions and it should also be realised that about 13 million people have recovered. A vaccine is not expected until the end of 2020 at the earliest.
The virus involved is SARS-CoV-2, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome CoronaVirus 2, one of several coronaviruses, so named because of the crown-like structure of ‘spike’ proteins on their surface. Outside the human body, the virus is destroyed by household soap, which bursts its protective bubble. First identified in the 1960s, they were thought to affect mainly non-human animals. However, in 2003 the SARS coronavirus killed 774 people. Genetic evidence suggests that this virus has been hiding in nature possibly for decades.2 Unlike most other viruses, Covid-19 does not acquire mutations that could weaken it. Coronaviruses have a ‘proofreading’ mechanism of the genome so that drugs such as ribavirin, used successfully against hepatitis C, have failed to work against SARS-CoV-2. These drugs weaken viruses by inducing mutations but in the coronaviruses the ‘proofreader’ can eliminate such mutations.3
Coronaviruses are particularly deadly because they swapping sections of their RNA with other coronaviruses, although usually a random exchange between like viruses, when distant coronavirus relatives end up in the same cell, recombination can lead to powerful versions that infect new cell types and can even jump to other species.4
The three coronaviruses that cause severe disease – SARS-CoV (the cause of SARS), MERS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 – all came from bats, but scientists think there is usually an intermediary – an animal infected by the bats that carries the virus into humans, possibly civet cats, sold in live-animal markets in China.5 The transfer of genetic material between species, ‘zoonotic transfer’, is clearly now an area that requires urgent research and monitoring.
The spike proteins of coronaviruses have a unit called a ‘receptor-binding domain’, key to their success in entering human cells. The SARS-CoV-2 binding domain is particularly efficient. Its infection potency is related to the fact that viral particles can move from the throat into saliva even before symptoms start, and these can then be transferred to others easily.6 The lungs may suffer irreversible damage, sometimes leading to death. The lungs are the organs most affected because the virus accesses host cells via the enzyme ACE2, which is most abundant in alveolar cells of the lungs. It is the infamous coronavirus ‘spike’, a surface glycoprotein, that is used to connect to ACE2 and enter the host cell.7
Furin, an enzyme on the host cell breaks down the spike protein, allowing the infusion of the viral RNA, causing protein production in the host cell, producing new virus particles that can then go on to attack other cells. The abundance of furin in the respiratory tract and elsewhere that may explain the potency of SARS-COV-2.8
Cytokines are small proteins. The immune system releases them to enable a coordinated response against infection but excessive or uncontrolled levels of cytokines activate more immune cells, resulting in hyperinflammation. This can seriously harm or even kill the patient.9
The virus does not seem to weaken over time, owing to its efficient genetic repair mechanism. As a ‘selfish gene’ it doest not care about he survival of the host so long as it can reproduce and transmit to new cells (thus new people). On average, the coronavirus accumulates about two changes per month in its genome., most of which do not affect how the virus behaves, but a few may change the disease’s transmissibility or severity. An intriguing problem is, given that the virus has spread to at least 11 million people worldwide, why aren’t there more mutations affecting its behaviour? A possible answer, from our knowledge of the way evolution works, is that there may be very little ‘selection pressure’, in other words the virus does not need to mutate since the ‘hosts’ have little or no resistance; they are ‘immunologically naive’.10
Once there is either ‘herd immunity’ or widespread vaccination, there will be a residual presence of antibodies. These will not prevent further infections but the symptoms will be mild, making the situation similar to that of the viruses that cause colds.11
The pandemic has been extraordinary in the rapidity and universality of its infection power. Whether or not it originated with the Hunan Seafood Wholesale Market, it is evident that events in one small part of the world can quickly and devastatingly affect any and every other part.
In the Faith theology, The Unity-Law, the idea that everything in the universe is part of a cosmos, in which all things are ordered and interrelated in being as the imprint of the Mind of God in matter, means that all humans are in a relationship with each other and with God, whether or not they acknowledge this. SARS -CoV-2, like all organisms, is the result of a long evolution and is still evolving.
However, although we humans have not evolved genetically to resist this virus adequately, our minds transcend the mere material.
As persons, rather than mere animals, we transcend the material order while being part of it. The intellect and the will are signs of this transcendence. The use of PPE and Intensive-Care treatments, and the development of vaccines using the latest genetic science, are not an evolutive response, in the way that the coronavirus evolves. but a sign of our God-given transcendence.
Our spiritual unity-law, the relationship between our souls and God involves God as our environment or, in Fr. Edward Holloway’s terminology, “God is our Environer”.12
The Human Mind
The biology, biochemistry, genetics, virology, epidemiology, etc. are all a result of the achievements of the human mind. The very existence of science is due to the fact that the human, transcendent mind has a relationship with ‘Mind’ at work in the universe itself, the Unity-Law, evidence of the Mind of God. Failure to cooperate with God’s plan for us in the moral and spiritual order is, therefore, just as detrimental as failing to feed ourselves. As Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’ , quoting Romano Guardini and Pope Saint John Paul II:
“ The technological mind sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given’, as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into useful shape; it views the cosmos similarly as a mere ‘space’ into which objects can be thrown with complete indifference”.13 The intrinsic dignity of the world is thus compromised. When human beings fail to find their true place in this world, they misunderstand themselves and end up acting against themselves: “Not only has God given the earth to man, who must use it with respect for the original good purpose for which it was given, but, man too is God’s gift to man. He must therefore respect the natural and moral structure with which he has been endowed.”14