28 April 2020

Space Pirates and Docking Ports: virology 101 for small persons

Are you wondering why we are all still at home, and worried about coronavirus? Let me try and explain a bit about how viruses work.

A virus is like a little capsule - like a survival pod from a spaceship, it's only got room enough inside for the essentials. It can't do anything on it's own except float around through space - so it looks for the nearest safe docking port. Viruses dock up against the regular cells our body has, and once they have made the connection (like when the airlock clicks when a spaceship connects to a station), the stuff inside the virus busts out of the capsule and takes over the space station, like invading space pirates. All the work of the space station is turned over to the pirates, who use the station to make more capsules to send out to take over other stations.

So, why doesn't our body just fight off the space pirate viruses? Well, once they have injected themselves into the space station, from the outside, nobody can tell they are there. The virus gets control before any emergency beacon signals can be sent out. So it's sneaky: it floats through the air and into the body and into the cells all without raising any alarms. Eventually, the body realizes that the cells aren't doing what they usually do, that the space stations have all stopped doing their regular jobs because of the pirates. Special pirate-fighting forces are deployed - that's your immune response, the antibodies you hear about in the news. After awhile, the antibodies get pretty good at spotting space pirates, but fighting space pirates is hard and sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. That's when your body gets sick: the battles going on between your cells and the virus invaders gives you a fever and chills and lots of other unpleasant things. If the body is able to raise enough of a pirate-fighting force, it can probably fight off the invaders. Sometimes, though, the body needs the allies to come in with extra support: help with breathing (from oxygen or a ventilator), or help with keeping the temperature down, or fluid levels right ... and that's when people end up in the hospital.

Sometimes, the pirates take over and there's just not enough resources to fight them off - and that's when people die. The reason we are all staying home and far away from other people is that the virus can't travel anywhere on it's own: it is adrift in space, and hoping to bump into a likely space station, but it can't steer itself or decide where to go next. If we can keep our bodies away from places where the space pirate virus hides out (on surfaces like doorknobs and cash registers, in other people's bodies, in the air around someone who carries the virus), then we can slow the pirates down by giving them fewer opportunities to find docking ports. That's why we stay back, wash our hands, cover our faces: the virus likes to get into the body through your nose and mouth and eyes especially, and it escapes from bodies it has already taken over mostly through the same openings. That's why we are so careful to cover our mouth when we cough (so we don't spread space pirate virus particles into the void), why we wash our hands so much (so we don't accidentally pick up a space pirate on our fingers and then deliver it to a docking port in your body).

If you want to know more about how virus pirates work, or how the body fights them off, or any other questions about how this works please ask. I studied this stuff in university, and I still remember how it goes. Meanwhile ... do your part to stop the space pirates. Wash your hands, keep your droplets to yourself, stay in places you already know are pirate-free ... like your house.

Hang in there. It's hard for everyone.