Pandemics, once they end, change some of our ways of relating to each other and introduce new customs
By Raúl Rivas González November 16, 2020 Share on FacebookShare Share on TwitterTweet Share on WhatsAppShare
Longbyearbyen Cemetery (Svalbard Islands, Norway) where a group of miners, victims of the 1918 flu epidemic, lie. Shutterstock / bmszealand
The royal touch was a vain procedure of laying on of hands practiced by French and English kings during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His goal was to heal the fateful ailments of his subjects. Although it was used especially against tuberculosis, during a time its practice extended to other types of diseases, both bacterial and viral in origin.
During the reign of Elizabeth I, the custom was once again restricted to the scrofula, an infectious process that affects the lymph nodes.
Elizabeth I was a bold, resounding, powerful queen and the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty to rule England and Ireland. Both his physical appearance and his cosmetic habits were very characteristic. At that time, putting on makeup was a sign of distinction and the queen did it profusely with Venetian white lead, a white pigment also known as white lead.
The makeup gave her an immaculate, almost virginal white appearance and matched her nickname, “the Virgin Queen.” It is that picture of whitish skin that has passed into posterity and has survived to this day.
Portrait of Isabel I (by anonymous author, around 1589), commemorating the defeat of the Spanish army (Wikimedia Commons)
The reason why Elizabeth I used such a lot of makeup was to hide the accentuated and numerous facial marks that had given her a deadly disease that she contracted at the age of 29: smallpox. She managed to survive, but the scars that the virus left on her body accompanied her throughout her life.
Like that of smallpox, many other viruses have played an essential role in important episodes of history, whether in literature, art, science, politics or in many other earthly facets that make up the edges of our existence as a species. These are just some examples.
Smallpox and the first mass vaccination campaign
Smallpox is the disease caused by the variola virus, a highly contagious orthopoxvirus that killed the almighty Ramses V, fourth pharaoh of the 20th dynasty of Egypt, and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma.
The spread of the fatal smallpox during the 18th and 19th centuries led to the Spanish military doctor Francisco Javier de Balmis y Berenguer in 1803 organizing “the Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition”, nicknamed the Balmis Expedition. Its objective was to vaccinate against this disease to all the subjects of the Spanish Empire.
The action was supported and paid for by King Carlos IV, committed to the cause after seeing his daughter, the Infanta María Teresa, die of smallpox. The feat, which took place between 1803 and 1814, was the first mass vaccination campaign in history.
In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) certified the eradication of smallpox as a consequence of an exceptional global vaccination campaign led by epidemiologist Donald Henderson.
The María Pita, a ship chartered for the expedition, departing from the port of La Coruña in 1803 (engraving by Francisco Pérez). Wikimedia Commons
The tobacco mosaic virus and the development of virology
In 1882, the German Adolf Mayer described the tobacco mosaic disease for the first time. At the same time, in St. Petersburg, Dmitri Ivanovsky was also studying pathology. Ivanovsky showed that the agent that caused it passed through a sterilizing filter, without realizing that he had discovered a new type of infectious agent: viruses.
The tobacco mosaic virus enabled the development of virology. It also contributed significantly to the understanding of the genetic nature of RNA, the genetic code and the advancement of molecular biology and the understanding of the physicochemical and antigenic properties of macromolecules.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus and AIDS: the first great media pandemic
At the end of the 20th century, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) had a devastating impact on the social, economic, health and demographic spheres of the planet, becoming the first great pandemic that technologically advanced society has faced.
In its later stages, it is common for one of the more than 20 opportunistic infections or cancers related to the spread of the virus. At that time, it is applied that the person suffers from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
To date, an estimated 35 million people have died from AIDS-related causes. Among them, celebrities like Freddy Mercury, Rock Hudson or Anthony Perkins, who helped make the disease visible.
The presence of the virus changed the world, changing the customs, behavior, health habits, drug use, prevention methods, health care practices and sexual relationships of millions of people.
Photomicrograph of HIV-1 (green) in a lymphocyte culture. Wikimedia Commons / C. Goldsmith / CDC
The tulip mosaic virus and the “business of the air”
The tulip mosaic virus causes a redistribution of the pigments in the tulip flower, creating wonderful and unique specimens. In the middle of the 16th century, it first affected tulip cultivation in Holland, giving rise to unpredictable, unrepeatable varieties that ignited the greed and desire of buyers.
The possession of one of those showy tulips was a symbol of opulence and power. Thus, in 1623, the price of a single bulb was five times the annual salary of a craftsman.
In 1637 speculation for tulip bulbs collapsed. Bankruptcies spread throughout the country, the Dutch economy cracked, and the social landscape was reorganized. The phenomenon was known as windhandel (air business) and constituted the first great economic bubble in history.
Bacteriophage T4 or phage T4 is a virus that infects Escherichia coli bacteria and one of the most widely used model organisms in scientific laboratories.
It is easy and safe to grow, which is why its study has been intensified since the middle of the 20th century. Thanks to this, many of the basic and general principles of molecular biology and the evolution of these pathogens were discovered. The little virus changed the course of scientific research and elementary science worldwide.
What role did measles play in the colonization of America?
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can cause serious complications such as blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infections, or pneumonia.
According to estimates by the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2018 more than 140,000 people died of measles worldwide.
It arrived on the American continent in the 15th century, together with the Spanish colonizers. The indigenous people were not immunized against the disease, so the measles and smallpox epidemics made it easier for the conquerors Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, supported by only a few hundred soldiers, to subdue powerful well-established armies like the Aztec of Moctezuma , in Mexico, or the Inca of Huayna Cápac, in Peru.
SARS-CoV, a turning point in the Asian economy
SARS-CoV is a coronavirus that was first detected in 2002 in the Chinese province of Guangdong. It is responsible for the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). According to the WHO, more than 8,000 people became ill with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. 774 died.
The new disease caused the Chinese government to impose quarantines and isolation on a large part of the population, preventing the development of normal commercial practices. As a result, some companies began to promote electronic commerce.
For example, the Alibaba platform business grew 50%. The company launched Taobao which in just two years surpassed eBay, becoming the Chinese market leader and facilitating the development of today's thriving e-commerce.
How Yellow Fever Interrupted Construction of the Panama Canal
Yellow fever is an acute and hemorrhagic viral disease, caused by arboviruses of the genus Flavivirus and transmitted by infected mosquitoes of the genera Aedes and Haemogogus . At the end of the 19th century, the disease hampered the works of the Panama Canal. As the workers fell ill or left the job for fear of contagion, its construction was delayed 33 years.
In fact, yellow fever, malaria and disastrous management led to the abandonment of the project and the end of the “French channel”. This caused the United States government to finance the project, by obtaining the exploitation and construction rights. Finally, it was inaugurated on August 15, 1914, becoming one of the most important engineering works in history.
Construction works of the Panama Canal in 1913. Wikimedia Commons / Thomas Marine
African swine fever: a drag on the pork market in 2018
African swine fever (ASF) is a highly contagious disease caused by a DNA virus from the Asfarviridae family. It does not pose a threat to human health, but it is lethal to domestic pigs and wild boars of all ages.
Since ASF is a notifiable disease to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), when an outbreak appears in a pig farm, all pigs must be slaughtered and strict sanitary measures must be implemented. Actions that cause direct and indirect economic losses and social consequences in the affected regions.
In August 2018, an ASF outbreak appeared in northeast China and quickly spread across the country. Despite the fact that China is one of the largest producers and consumers of pork in the world, the disease killed 40% of these animals in the country. Hundreds of millions of animals died or had to be euthanized.
The result was a chronic pork shortage and skyrocketing prices. Pork imports increased but, as there were not enough pigs in the world to supply China, prices in all countries rose.
Faced with the impossibility of raising pigs, China gave priority to chicken production. In addition, it stopped buying cereals and soybeans for feed in the foreign market, altering all markets globally.
African swine fever virus. Wikimedia Commons
The polio vaccine, musical inspiration
The polio virus is transmitted from person to person, almost always by the fecal-oral route, but it can also be transmitted through contaminated food or water . During the 20th century the disease reached epidemic proportions. Fighting it was a preferred objective to try to achieve its eradication.
In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio and the virus left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Hence, when he became president of the United States in 1933, he started the well-known “war on polio.” Roosevelt's popularity was so great that it allowed him to be the only president to win four American elections.
In 1963, the Government carried out an aggressive publicity campaign in favor of vaccination against polio with the Sabin vaccine. Administering this to one of his children would inspire composer Robert Sherman to create one of the most famous tunes in movie history: Mary Poppins' A Spoonful Of Sugar.
Roosevelt, his dog Fala and his granddaughter Ruthie Bie photographed in 1941. Wikimedia Commons / Margaret Suckley
Human adenovirus type 12
Adenoviruses were first discovered in 1953 by Wallace Rowe. They were isolated from adenoid tissue cell culture, hence the surname Adenoviridae.
These are small viruses that include 7 human adenovirus species (A to G) and 57 immunologically distinct serotypes. In 1962, John Trentin and his colleagues discovered that, under laboratory conditions, the virus caused cancer in baby hamsters. This was the first demonstration of oncogenic activity caused by a human virus.
Adenoviruses have helped scientists study the functions of genes. Also to understand messenger RNA splicing, alternative polyadenylation, enhancers, and protein inactivation of tumor suppressor genes.
H1N1 flu virus, Spanish flu and baby boom
Seasonal flu is a known and feared viral illness. Some of its strains have caused terrible pandemics. The most notable, known as the Spanish flu in 1918, caused the death of more than 40 million people.
The causative agent was the H1N1 type of influenza virus. This, by unleashing an uncontrolled cytokine storm, led to an uncontrolled immune system and irreversible lung damage and inflammation.
Poster about the 1918 flu epidemic published by the Alberta (Canada) Board of Health. Wikimedia Commons / Alberta Board of Health
The pandemic revealed that infectious diseases were a problem that needed to be addressed at the population level. During the following years many countries changed their public health strategy. On the one hand, they chose to adopt the concept of socialized medicine; on the other, they strengthened surveillance and medical care systems.
The dramatic population decline was offset in the following years by the baby boom effect. Encouraged by the strategies of governments of many countries, it promoted the birth rate and the characteristics of large families in the mid-twentieth century.
John Cunningham virus
The John Cunningham virus or JC virus is very common. In fact, it is present between 50 and 70% of the human population. Although it is contracted during childhood, it appears to remain dormant until some circumstance (such as suppression of the immune system) reactivates it and allows it to proliferate, which can lead to serious brain infections.
There are at least 14 subtypes of viruses associated with different human populations. Due to its presumed co-divergence with humans, the JC virus has been used as a genetic marker for human evolution and migration. It has been observed that those present in the native people of Northeast Asia are very similar to those of the Native North Americans. This situation would support the hypothesis of an archaic migration from Asia to North America via the Beringia land bridge.
What is the relationship between the character of Snow White and chickenpox?
Chickenpox is an acute systemic infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus that usually appears in childhood. Its epidemics occur both in winter and at the beginning of spring and are repeated in cycles of 3 or 4 years.
Apparently, the infection is related to the character of Snow White: her story is inspired by the figure of Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal, a German princess orphaned by a mother, who during her childhood suffered partial blindness when contracting chickenpox. Catharina's kindness coupled with her handicap earned her the unconditional appreciation and affection of the people.
Years later, the story reached the ears of the Grimm brothers who built and furnished a magnificent tale around it. Thus, unintentionally, chickenpox originated a wonderful story that has accompanied us since childhood.
Mink farm in Denmark. Shutterstock / BigDane
The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the Dutch mink industry
The current outbreak of the covid-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. Since then, the virus has killed more than 1,200,000 people and it has accelerated profound changes in our society such as habitual behavior, the way we interact and even the lines of business in different countries.
Many animals are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Especially minks, which show respiratory problems similar to humans.
The Netherlands is the fourth country in the world for mink production (about 6 million animals per year). Although in 2012 the Dutch Senate voted to ban their breeding on ethical grounds and allowed a 12-year transition period, the situation has changed radically: the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than a third from all Dutch mink farms showing evidence of animal-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2 within mink farms.
For this reason, the Dutch government has been forced to advance the end of the mink breeding programs from January 1, 2024 to the end of March 2021.
In short, there are many viruses that have modified our history. Let us be sure that in the future they will continue to be the protagonists of our lives.
Raúl Rivas González is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Salamanca
Article originally published on The Conversation