Answer by Diane Eager.

Coronaviruses are named after their appearance as a round blob surrounded by a garland or crown of knobs. “Corona” means “crown” as in “coronation”. They consist of a package of genetic material and proteins surrounded by a membrane, with club shaped protein spikes protruding from its surface. The protein spikes form the “crown”, and are what enables the virus to attach to, and then enter the cells in an animal or human body. The creature successfully invaded is known as the host.

Seven types of coronavirus are known to cause illness in humans. Some cause common colds or gastrointestinal upsets. Before the 2019/2020 outbreak, the most serious coronavirus diseases were SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The current disease, known as COVID 19, is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2. In many people it causes an URTI (upper respiratory tract infection) consisting of fever, malaise, sore throat and dry cough, and usually resolves itself after a few days. In some people, however, it can go down into the lower respiratory tract and lungs, causing pneumonia. These people are seriously ill, and can die without medical treatment.

Coronaviruses are also found in animals including bats, mice, camels, and many other mammals. The virus can spread to humans when people hunt the host animal for food in the wild, or obtain them from Asian markets where they are often kept in unhygienic conditions. An animal with the virus many not be ill, but it can act as a ‘carrier’ to pass the virus into other animals or people. The SARS outbreak was attributed to Palm Civets, a small mammal sometimes called a Civet Cat but it is not ‘cat’, as in a domestic feline. MERS has been traced to domestic camels.

The two known animal sources of the current coronavirus disease seem to be bats and pangolins, although the precise steps in transmission to humans are not yet known. Bats are well known for harbouring viruses that can infect humans. Pangolins are small mammals that eat ants, so can easily pick up the virus if they are foraging ground contaminated with bat droppings. Pangolins have an unusual scaly coat, and are used in traditional oriental medicine, as well as food.

The most notorious and deadly example of an outbreak of bat-mediated virus disease is Ebola. Other viruses known to be harboured by animals and birds include the Australian Hendra virus, lyssavirus, and many varieties of influenza. Sometimes the transfer to humans is a multistep process through two or more animals, which can result in extensive spread of disease. Pigs might not fly, but pig flu can if it gets transferred to birds such as ducks, which make the transfer to humans easy, whenever they are handled or eaten.

Once a virus has been transferred into the human body it must enter our cells in order to reproduce and cause disease. The protein knobs on the SARS-CoV-2 virus latch onto a protein known as ACE2 on the surface of the cells in our respiratory system. When this happens the virus can move into the cell.

What happens next is the key to disease problems. Coronavirus carry their own genetic material as RNA, but they do not possess the cellular machinery needed to replicate their RNA or build the proteins and other components needed to make a virus  The virus genetic material uses the host cell’s protein-making machinery to make more and more viruses, which eventually burst out of the cell, destroying the cell and spreading themselves and toxins, etc. to other cells.  (Some viruses have DNA for their genetic material, but they also need to use a host cell’s machinery to reproduce.)

Is the Virus Evolving?

Viruses are subject to mutations and natural selection, but this is not evolution. Viral RNA genes are mutating all the time, and this results in many variations of already existing genes, no-one has ever observed this process produce any new genes.  The genome of the SARS-CoV-2 is slightly different to other coronaviruses, so it probably is the result of mutations of one of the other coronaviruses that we already knew about.  All variants of the current SARS-CoV-2 virus (some list as many as 21) seem to be the result of mutations of genes for the crown proteins which result in changes in the shape of the protein knobs.  This means they can attach to different cell surface proteins.  If they find themselves in a new host which has proteins that the changed virus can attach to, the virus can invade the cells of this new host.  If this happened the virus is said to have “jumped species”.  Note well! The virus with modified proteins is not a new kind of virus, even though it is causing a “new” disease. It is still a coronavirus, but a different variety of coronavirus.  The virus may have changed, but it has not undergone evolution, which is why it still has the same virus name, i.e. coronavirus. 

Also, mutations may also render a crown protein gene useless, so that the proteins have a shape which can’t attach to the surface proteins of any cell, including its original host. Viruses carrying this kind of mutation cannot reproduce and are eventually eliminated. This is natural selection at work, i.e. some survive and some die, but it is not evolution, because no new kinds of viruses are produced – just variations on the already existing viruses. Mutations and natural selection are real process but they never explain how any proteins or genes came into existence.

Why did God make viruses?

The original function of viruses is rather a mystery, but let’s look at viruses from a Biblical worldview, i.e. an original very good creation. On this basis we can be sure that viruses were not originally created to kill people or animals since there was no death, disease or violence in people or animals. People and animals ate plants, and there was no struggle to survive. Therefore, no-one could have contracted any virus disease through eating animals, or having a violent encounter with an animal.

Many viruses we have found do not make people or other living things ill. We carry them around on our internal body surfaces, along with myriads of other microbes (bacteria, etc).  This indicates they must have a function, or have had a function in the past that didn’t involve making people ill. Even the current coronavirus has been found in people who are not ill, as revealed when mass testing has been carried out.  Therefore, it is possible the coronavirus virus has already existed harmlessly in animals or even people but no-one knew about it.

This leads us to an important point – unless viruses are causing problems we don’t hear about them because researchers are not even looking for them.  When things are working quietly in the background, or sitting passively not giving anyone any grief, no news media is going to report it as no-one would consider it to be news, and scientists are not motivated to study them.  The current lack of knowledge about any original good functions of viruses is due to lack of interest in research, and lack of grant money for research.  You don’t find out things you are not looking for, and if you believe that viruses evolved to reproduce themselves and spread by making people sick, you concentrate on that aspect of their existence. The same situation existed to give bacteria a bad name in the 1800’s but 150 years later we know that most of them are not only useful, but really helpful. We predict, based on the goodness of Christ’s original creation, the same will happen to viruses, as they are elevated to perhaps useful micro-messengers needed by all cells and environments. This is where Biblical biology can form a useful basis for scientific research.

Now back to the next step of Biblical history.  Following Adam’s sin the creation degenerated into a mix of good and bad, which means we can be equally sure that degenerative processes in living things also happened to viruses, as well as in people’s behaviour, and these are the root cause of any bad interaction between viruses and people that results in disease.

One result of having ‘tolerant’ people who can carry the virus without being harmed is that they can pass it on to vulnerable people who do become ill, which brings us to another degeneration – our human immune system. One function of the immune system is to keep the microbes we live with in their place. In the beginning this process worked efficiently, so any viruses in the wrong place would be eliminated. Since then, our immune systems, like all other body functions have degenerated.

The other thing that has degenerated, and therefore caused disease, is human behaviour. Simple hygienic practices such as washing, cleaning clothes and household surfaces, safe preparation and storage of food, etc. will keep a lot of disease-causing microbes at bay. The really big revolutions in improving the health of overall populations are the provision of good infrastructure, such as clean water supplies, effective sewerage, drainage and rubbish removal/recycling, and avoiding overcrowding and pollution. The reasons these are not provided in many places are human ignorance, oppression, wars and greed.

Therefore, let us not blame God for the current outbreak of disease, when it is much more accurate to blame people’s unclean habits. Even though He has allowed it to happen, and in a sovereign way He will use it to His glory in the same way He has allowed other “natural disasters” happen in the world ever since man rebelled against his Creator, back in the Garden of Eden. One purpose being to allow man time and opportunity to realise we are not God, and we do need a Saviour. God did not lose control of the world after man sinned, and He hasn’t lost control now. He is still Creator, Sustainer, Judge and Saviour, and is working His purposes out for mankind and the world.

For more
information on viruses as diseases, see the questions:

VIRUS: Why did God make Ebola virus? To kill people?  Answer here.

EBOLA: Can Ebola
become a problem in bat plagued Charters Towers Australia? Answer here.

FLU VACCINES: Do we need new ‘flu shots’ because the influenza virus is evolving? Answer here.

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