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Coronavirus | Science and Faith in Pandemic Times

Three interviews from scientists in the fields of microbiology, biochemistry, and infectious disease, all of them speaking about coronavirus from the Christian Perspective.

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Three interviews from scientists in the fields of microbiology, biochemistry, and infectious disease, all of them speaking about coronavirus from the Christian Perspective.

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A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on March 19, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

It’s not every day that we come face to face with science in such a drastic way as we have with the coronavirus, sweeping through our communities and upending our routines. Many of us feel a great deal of anxiety and worry and we want to respond to some of that by reaching into the science with three interviews from scientists in the fields of microbiology, biochemistry, and infectious disease, all of them speaking from the Christian perspective.

Find conversations about this episode or other topics on science and faith including the coronavirus on the BioLogos Forum.

You can find lots of great science about the coronavirus on Ben McFarland’s YouTube channel.


Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump.

It’s been a strange couple of weeks for me, as I’m sure it has for many of you, as we watch the coronavirus spread through our communities and up-end our routines. BioLogos has become a fully virtual workplace as we have followed the advice from the CDC and are not having any in-person meetings. Thankfully, the work we do lends itself to this environment pretty well. We know there are many other people in much more difficult circumstances both for their work and livelihoods, which may have come to a halt, and for them physically if they’re at high risk for suffering from the virus.

It’s not every day that we come face to face with science in such a drastic way. The scientific community is working at full speed to understand the virus better, how to temper the spread and reduce the impacts, and eventually to develop effective treatments and a vaccine. But in the meantime, many of us feel a great deal of anxiousness, worry, and fear about the health and safety of our friends and loved ones and about our ability to meet our needs without leaving our homes. We might even worry about whether we are worrying too much or not enough. Call that “meta-worrying.”

Well, in today’s episode we want to try and respond to some of that anxiousness and worry by reaching into the science of the coronavirus. We know the situation is changing rapidly, so we wanted to get an episode out as quickly as possible. We reached out to a number of scientists in our network, and were able to talk to these three on short notice, and do quick remote interviews with them. 

McFarland:

My name is Ben McFarland. I teach biochemistry at Seattle Pacific University. My research lab topic is actually about the biochemistry of how the immune system works in different aspects.

Schaffner:

My name’s Steve Schaffner. I’m a senior staff scientist, a computational biologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. And I’m a visiting scientist at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

Sethupathy:

Yeah, so my name is Praveen Sethupathy. I’m an associate professor of biomedical sciences at Cornell University. And also the director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics.

Stump:

Science can be messy, especially when it is in the early stages of trying to understand something new. That’s where it is with coronavirus, which means a lot of our understanding is still fuzzy, and there a lot of things we just don’t know. We’ll try to get a grasp of what it is we know, and what it is we still don’t know, and how we should feel about the stuff in the middle. We hope you’ll find a bit of comfort in the science of this, if not only because it is something known among all the unknowns. But, also, because it offers some bits of good news along with the more dire warnings and predictions.

But science can only bring us so far. While we can find some comfort in the science, Christians do not find their hope in circumstances, or science, or technology. But in the person of Jesus Christ and in the knowledge that ultimately God’s kingdom will come and God’s will will be done. But for now we’ve been called to care for the sick and the vulnerable among us, and understanding the science behind this pandemic will help us do that better.

Let’s get to the conversations, starting with Ben McFarland. 

Interview One: Ben McFarland

Stump:

Can you tell us a little bit about viruses then? Viruses are often held up as kind of borderline cases even for whether they’re alive. What exactly is a virus, and do you consider it a living organism?

McFarland:

Yeah, that’s a really interesting way to talk about it. I do consider viruses to be living but living in the same way that a parasite is living. They’re parasitic in a way because they require all the machinery of the cell, and they hijack that machinery of the cell in order to make more copies of themselves. And, so, the thing about the virus is it doesn’t really need the ability to manufacture more viruses. What it does is it takes over a cell and turns that cell into a virus making factory. Because of that, viruses don’t have to be big. Their genomes are actually very small, which means only 30,000 nucleotides. But that’s really small on the level of a genome compared…

Stump:

Compared to our 3 billion?

McFarland:

Exactly.

Stump:

So can we talk about its, for lack of a better term, its morphology? What does it look like? So if it’s a string of… Its DNA has a string of 30,000 nucleotides. When you zoom in on a virus… I mean it’s not even a cell, right? 

McFarland:

So a virus has to have some sort of shell on the outside made of protein. And on the inside it keeps its nucleic material, which would be DNA in most cases, but RNA in the case of the coronavirus. And that carries the information for hijacking the cell and making more viruses. The other thing about the coronavirus is it actually has a lipid membrane. That’s actually good news because the lipid membrane can be dissolved by soap, and that’s one of the reasons why everyone’s talking about washing your hands. This virus has an achilles heel that is that regular old soap will take it down if you can get the soap onto the virus. And so you’ve got to keep doing that. That’s why we’re always talking about that.

Stump:

So can you walk us through a little bit of the stages of what happens when somebody gets infected by a virus? So, somebody hasn’t washed their hands, say, and touches a surface or breathes in a virus, if it’s airborne, and what happens then? How does this start to hijack the machinery of my cells?

McFarland:

Yeah. As far as the introduction goes, we’re still not even sure how airborne it is. There’s indications all over the map of whether this virus can enter the cell by being breathed in, enter the body by being breathed in. But it looks, right now, like the scientific consensus is that it’s not very airborne. It can be born around in droplets but not really on particles that fly around in the air. We know that once the virus gets into the body, it will have to get into a cell. It will have to get up next to the cell’s own protein replication machinery, sort of the factory that makes more proteins in the cell, and it will have to make more copies of the virus.

Once it gets to that point, each virus can explode exponentially because it’s making, you know, tens of thousands of more copies of itself. And then it sends those out throughout your body. The part about that to realize is that it’s a somewhat complicated process. And so it takes time for the virus to go from getting one virus into one of your cells, to the point where it’s making more virus, and then spreading throughout your body. And then it has to get out of your body and has to be spread through a sneeze, or through touching a surface, or something like that. So there’s all sorts of issues… Those are several steps in a row that have to happen. So the really important thing is the virus cannot necessarily be detected right away when it’s in your body. It can be detected when you know that it spread throughout your body enough to cause symptoms. And there’s a short window before it causes symptoms, the symptoms of your body fighting it off, the symptoms of it taking over your cells, and causing them to malfunction.

There’s this sort of expectation that we have that if you have the virus, you should be able to know right away. And we have to be okay with not knowing for a day or two, at least, until we can have enough of that virus in our body that it can be detected. And then enough of the virus in the body to be detected through symptoms. That’s why we’re waiting for the symptoms to test in some cases because there might not be enough virus yet.

Stump:

But the problem is that even if there’s not enough of the virus for me to be symptomatic, I might still be contagious and passing it on to others?

McFarland:

Yes. Having enough virus to be able to shed it comes at least slightly before the time when you have enough virus that it’s making your body malfunction and you start to notice that you’re coughing or that you are fatigued.

Stump:

Okay. And then play the scenario out here within one person’s body, they start to develop enough of an immunity to the virus that you don’t have the symptoms anymore?

McFarland:

Right. Well, it’s sort of yes and no for that because some of the symptoms are actually your immune system fighting off the virus. Once the virus starts to replicate, it gets detected by the immune system. And there are several different waves of the immune system, and they differ in time of response. They can be fast or they can be slow, and they differ in complexity. They can be sort of simple, or they can be complex. And, so, it takes time for things like complex systems like antibodies to be developed against the virus and to be able to react against it. 

A lot of times, actually, with the progression of the disease, what you’re talking about when you have the symptoms, you don’t know for sure whether that’s the virus destroying your cells or whether it’s your own immune system trying to destroy the cells that have the virus in them. But your immune system definitely does that. And, so, it’s going to be fighting it off, it’s fighting off all sorts of things that we don’t even know about every day. It even fights off cancer. And so it takes time for that to develop as well. It takes about a week or more for your immune system to really get these complex systems online to be able to start fighting it.

Stump:

So what’s the place in all of this for developing a vaccination? How effective is that? What’s the process by which that happens? And is the timescale needed for such a thing unrealistic to think it will have much of an impact right now?

McFarland:

Well, the time scale is 18 months. And people are working as hard as they can on that. I don’t think that that can change very much. The timescale for a vaccine, it has to be tested. And the thing about vaccines is there’s always a bit of an element of danger because what you’re doing is you’re trying to teach the body what a virus looks like without having a virus that will really hurt you. Okay? So there’s many different ways to inactivate the virus, and then you give it to the body, and then you let the body learn how to respond to it. So you have the immune response. Your immune system is educated rather than having to go through the disease to get that education for your immune system. The thing about that is you are always walking a bit of a fine line between the danger of infecting somebody with the virus. So you want to make sure the virus is inactivated and things like that.

So all that’s to say a vaccine is very complicated, and there are some steps that really cannot be sped up. I think that with a focus on those steps, we can possibly speed it up so that it’s less than 18 months. But we are not there right now. And everyone who’s looked at it has said, we’ve got to expect to wait a year and a half before we have a vaccine. When we do, that’ll be great, because it means that we can keep the immunity of the entire human population up high enough that the immunocompromised individuals, the people who are really at risk from this virus, can be protected by the immune systems around them. If you have an immune system that can fight off the virus, then the virus can’t replicate in you and can’t get to your immuno-compromised family member.

Stump:

In the piece you wrote for our website last week, you described the experience of seeing the genome of the virus and understanding how it’s similar and different from other viruses. And you called that “science as therapy and science as grace.” Can you unpack that a little for our listeners here? How can science be therapy and grace?

McFarland:

Yeah, that comes from the experience of actually teaching it, and seeing what happened in my students, and being in the middle of this population that’s at risk, right? We’re coming into the class, and we don’t really know anything about this virus. Like I said, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take to make a vaccine. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for us really to fight this off. I don’t know, even, what the incubation period is, really, for the virus yet. We’re getting a handle on all those things. But very early on, at this early stage, there’s so much that we don’t know. And we’re used to knowing these things, you know? With all the unknowns, it’s really uncertain. And I don’t know about you, but that leads to anxiety for me. That leads to wondering: Oh, how bad is this going to be? How long will we have to stay away from each other to be able to get the virus to go away, to let our immune systems kick it out?

And, so, we were coming together, and to respond to that, I responded to my own anxiety by looking up and investigating. I don’t know if you know enneagram type stuff, but I’m definitely in the investigator type on that. I haven’t even taken the test because I know what I am. And, so, I investigated, and I found out this really interesting thing about what we know from the gene sequences, that the virus had been in the Seattle area for at least six weeks at that point. Again, a guess from what we don’t know. But there was enough certainty there to say, “Hey, you know, we know this about the virus. We can trace its system. It’s not like something that we’ve never seen before. We have seen things like this before. It has coronavirus structure and maybe even a coronavirus drug can make some headway against it.”

So with that investigation, it really was just gene sequences. Which is really reading the genes from the virus and saying, “Where do you see a few mutations?” And we had only seen a handful of mutations, only three mutations in the Seattle area. And that’s a little comforting, at least, as well. Because you get to be worried about: Is this some kind of fast mutating virus that we can’t keep up with? Well it looks like we can understand how it works. It falls within the range of viruses. It’s definitely on the very bad end of the range, as far as communicable disease goes. But it’s within the range of what we have seen before, and what we have dealt with as a society.

So that’s science as a tool. And, you know, the thing about when I look at science being able to take a virus, and we can take a viral sample, we can count on the fact that the chemistry will work the same way, and we’ll be able to see these genes in the same order, and identify the couple of mutations where it’s actually changed. All of that depends on the world working the same way today as it did yesterday. And to me that’s one of the most fundamental things as a Christian, when I focus on the world, I see a world that was created according to certain rules. And I think those rules are kind of a gift because we can take those rules, and we can use those rules. They’re rules we can understand, and, so we can understand something about this virus in the midst of all the things we don’t know and all the worries that we have.

That’s the reassurance that I’m talking about. It comes from the idea that the world is created according to rules. And in fact, the one word for those rules in ancient Greek is logos. And that’s one of the reasons why logos is even in the BioLogos name. Biology plays by rules. And we can play by those rules too. This is so much bigger than what we are, and so much that we don’t know. We don’t know if that surface is going to infect us. We don’t know if my wife is going to get sick. I don’t know if my kids are going to be okay. But in the middle of all of that, I know that I can sequence a viral genome, and I can see where that virus has been. And that is comforting in the middle of what we don’t know. And it’s a gift because it’s a way that we can start to make steps toward being able to do things that control the virus. And that’s why I see it as a gift.

Stump:

Nice. It happens to be the season of Lent, as we’re talking right now. And you made a reference to that in one of your recent YouTube videos. Could you say a little bit about that here for our audience?

McFarland:

Yeah. You know, I’ve been going to church for a long time. And, you know, there are often sermons about Sabbath, and Lent, and the rhythms where God says to Israel or to the church, “You need to take a break. You need to stop doing all this work so that you can let me work.” And I hear a little bit of a sense in that. I hear it. God speaking in a sense, even through the timing of this. Because it comes, it coincides exactly for Seattle, with the season of Lent. And the season of Lent is not just about giving stuff up.

You know, I have a pastor friend who actually posted on his Facebook page something along the lines of: “I wasn’t planning on giving up this much for Lent, but it seems like God is demanding this of us.” And, you know, when I look at that, there is a sense in which you have a little bit of a blessing. The blessing of being able to step back and trust God in this, in this very scary situation where there’s a lot of suffering going on. And the idea that there’s a rhythm to the week leads to the rest on the Sabbath. The idea that there’s a rhythm to the year leads to the time of reflection, and penitence, and repentance that goes along with Lent.

So I’m just tying that together to the thread of what we see throughout the whole Bible where God is saying to people, “I want you to not do that thing. You know, that thing that you’re doing. I want you not to do that. And I want you not to go to work. You know, I want you to look after your neighbor and tend to your family and even be shut in with your family for a couple of weeks here.” And, you know, there’s a lot of scary suffering that we can try to eliminate by going after this virus with science. But there’s a lot of ways in which we can listen to how we can help each other in the suffering and remember the suffering and patience that Jesus endured during this time of Lent, when we’re remembering that stuff already.

I think that that’s what it means to be living life with a rhythm that is set by God and to be looking for “what is God saying?” in every situation. Even an epidemic that is scary that we’re fighting against with everything we have and we’re trying to keep our friends from suffering. Even in that, God is with us. And so seeing that and listening to say, “God, what are you doing here? How long are we going to have to do this? What are you calling me to do to help the people around me and to pour myself out for them like Jesus poured himself out for the church and for me?”

[musical interlude]

Stump:

Ben McFarland wrote a moving article about the early days of the coronavirus in Seattle where he lives. It can be found on the BioLogos website. He also has a YouTube channel where he’s been giving scientific updates on coronavirus. Links to both those pages are in the show notes. 

Let’s get to our second interview, with Steve Schaffner. 

Interview Two: Steve Schaffner

Stump:

So can you start by telling us a little bit about your work as it seems to me that it’s particularly relevant for a conversation about the coronavirus situation today? What is it that you typically do?

Schaffner:

What I typically do is: I’m a computational person, and I study infectious diseases, particularly viruses and malaria. I kind of wear two hats. Those are two quite different fields. And I analyze and interpret data. I’ve worked on projects involving a mumps outbreak, Zika, Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, various viruses. So I spent a lot of time in the viral field. I’m not studying this particular virus. It’s not my job. So I’m just speaking as someone who knows something about viruses and is trying to keep up with what’s going on with this one.

Stump:

Right. Okay. So this is a coronavirus, which is a particular type of virus. Is that right? This is a whole family. What is it about some, what is it about a virus that makes it a coronavirus?

Schaffner:

Well, it’s called a coronavirus because of its shape. It looks vaguely crown-like. Viruses come in all sorts of different shapes. They have different genetic materials. Some are DNA, some are RNA. They’re quite different. This one’s a part of a group of viruses called coronaviruses. Some of several of them infect humans. Several of them cause the common cold. Something like a third of colds are caused by other versions of the coronavirus. This one’s more closely related to a couple of other viruses that have appeared and in humans briefly and have caused disease. One caused the SARS outbreak in 2003. And another one causes MERS, which is transmitted from camels to humans sometimes. It doesn’t transmit very well from human to human. This one, unfortunately, does transmit very well from human to human.

Stump:

So when you say it’s related, can we actually go back and find how long ago these may have diverged from each other? Or is that not how viruses work in that sense?

Schaffner:

Yes. I mean they’re related because they’re genetically similar. And people are doing the calculations to see—given the rate at which mutations occur, because these viruses, they do mutate and they accumulate mutations over time—you can use that as a clock and estimate how long ago it was that they descended from the same virus.

Stump:

Tell us a little bit more about the mutations in a virus situation like this. You hear, at least among popular news or social media feeds, that there are worries about mutations. That this could all of the sudden, you know, become really bad for children the way it hasn’t been yet or become much more deadly. Is this the way mutations work in viruses or what are we worried about there? What should we be worried about there?

Schaffner:

Mutations don’t usually work that way in viruses. Most do not mutate to become more deadly. It’s a possibility. And there’s not much we can do about it besides trying to, you know, control the current outbreak. There is some trend towards viruses gradually becoming less less virulent, less deadly. Because a virus that sticks around for a long time, but doesn’t make you very sick, is going to be more successful than something that makes you so sick, you take your bed, or if it actually kills you. But that’s likely to take quite a while to occur. And it can take a long time for viruses to be tamed in that way. 

So, you know, the mutations are not high on my list of concerns. I’m more concerned with proper response to the current wave of infection that’s spreading through. It’s problem is, you know, humans have not been exposed to this virus before, so everyone is basically susceptible so it can really burn through a population very quickly.

Stump:

So, what is it that we really need to know about this virus? I mean, here on the scientific side that would help in, perhaps, creating the right public policy for what we ought to be doing. What are the unknowns scientists are working on to try to inform us?

Schaffner:

I mean, there are two big unknowns, and to some extent we’re just gonna have to wait and see for one of them. The one big unknown is: How seasonal is this virus going to be or is this outbreak going to be? Because some viruses, including some other coronaviruses, do not transmit as well in warm, humid weather. So in the summer, in the Northern hemisphere, the outbreak might recede or might become less intense. Either, might peter out for a while completely or more likely transmission would just be lower. Which might allow for some loosening of some of the restrictions we were putting in place, for a while. But, of course, if that’s true, then it’s likely to come back as soon as it gets colder.

And meanwhile, in the Southern hemisphere where it’s winter you know, in places like Argentina or Australia, they would be at higher risk and would have more trouble to manage. But that would at least buy us sometime in the Northern hemisphere for, you know, preparing, for restocking hospitals, getting, buying more mechanical ventilators, all the things we need to cope with high infection rates. So that’s one big unknown. The other big unknown is whether any drugs we currently have available work against it. There are some promising leads that have shown efficacy in a lab dish against cells that are infected. Or even in animal models with other viruses, with other coronaviruses. And there are clinical trials, phase three clinical trials, already in progress.

Stump:

Phase three?

Schaffner:

Phase three, because these are… The reason we’re focusing on—not we, personally—but the worldwide community is focusing on drugs that are already approved for other uses. So they don’t have to be tested for safety. We know that they can be tolerated by people, and, so, it can go immediately to a phase three trial and see if it works. And obviously you want… You know, you need to try it on people with advanced disease or people with mild disease before they become, you know, far along and see if you know who it works for, if anyone. There’s one drug, remdesivir, that was developed to combat Ebola and which turned out not to work as well as some other drugs for Ebola. So it was, kind of, put on the shelf, but that has shown considerable promise that’s being tried. And there are multiple trials of that. One drawback to that is that it has to be delivered intravenously, I believe. So that would be not perfect but certainly better than nothing.

There’s a little bit less evidence for a drug called chloroquine and one of…

Stump:

It’s a Malaria drug, right?

Schaffner:

Which is primarily a malaria drug. There’s also a hydroxychloroquine which is used for malaria and for rheumatoid arthritis and other things. Which would be great if they are actually effective, even moderately effective, because those can be taken by mouth. We’ve had experience for decades with them, using them against malaria. And they’re even widely available. Some of those results, you know, the first results should be coming out in a few weeks from those tests. So that could make a big difference one way or the other.

Stump:

So when we hear that it’s going to take 18 months for a vaccine, that’s one that’s designed specifically for this coronavirus?

Schaffner:

Right. Yeah because…

Stump:

That’s why it takes that long?

Schaffner:

Yes because vaccines… You know, the vaccine has to be specific to a virus because you know, each virus is gonna have slightly different proteins and you require different antibodies to attack it. And people have already designed vaccines against this virus. They did so very quickly. As soon as they had the genome sequence, they actually designed synthetic pieces that would look like the virus. And they’ve already begun testing at least one vaccine on volunteers just to see if it’s safe. And if it produces any kind of immune reaction at all, which you obviously want to see some sort of immune response to it. 

Stump:

Okay. So two big unknowns about the seasonality of it and the effectiveness of vaccines, given those unknown…

Schaffner:

Effectiveness of drugs, primarily.

Stump:

Drugs as a whole. Given those unknowns though, can I ask you the million dollar question here? What’s your estimate of the natural life cycle of this virus? What’s in store, and where is this headed?

Schaffner:

Now we’re getting to real unknowns, and it depends critically on the measures taken against it. We’ve seen very different trajectories in different countries. China, which is where it started and got very bad before they really caught onto what was going on, has almost completely controlled their outbreak with the intense lockdowns, and quarantines, and supervision, and monitoring that would not be acceptable in our society, probably. And we couldn’t deploy, anyway. We lack the state structure to do it. I mean, apparently anywhere you go now, they’re starting to loosen restrictions. But, even so, if you go to the store, your fever’s checked. You come home, your fever is checked. You go anywhere, your fever is checked. That’s by no means a perfect measure, but it’ll give them a clue. They’ll start to pick up if there’s a new outbreak somewhere or a new cluster. And, you know, if you move from one city to another, you may have to be in quarantine for two weeks. So that’s, you know, it’s possible to control it. 

South Korea has less onerous restrictions, but they’re still pretty intense, and they’re bringing their outbreak under control. If you don’t do anything, it runs completely amuck and probably infects two thirds of your population within a few months. And when that happens a lot of people die, basically. A completely open question is: What happens even if you get it under control pretty well, and you start to loosen restrictions because it’s very hard to run a society or an economy where you can’t go out and work or do anything else? Is the outbreak going to rebound, repeatedly? You’ve loosened restrictions, it starts to come back, you tighten it. We might be in that kind of bouncing situation for a while. Hopefully, you know, if it is seasonal and we get a break during the summer, that would give us, you know, sort of a prolonged pause. And then we could start to be more serious about it and again in the fall.

Stump:

I wonder if we might close here by having you wax a little bit about the role of science. I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that this pandemic has made science more prominent in society because, unless we live in a cave, our lives are already saturated with the products of science and technology, whether we know it or not. But it’s certainly the case that science and scientists have been thrust into the limelight these days. I don’t think I’ve seen scientists on the evening news so often. And as society longs for information, and deterrence, and, ultimately, a cure, even, for this virus, that’s only going to be more so. And society as a whole, though, has not always been very trusting of science. I wonder what’s the reaction amongst scientists in an institute like yours when you see major segments of the public ignoring or denying the work that people like you are doing on a daily basis?

Schaffner:

Well, in terms of day to day, we can be rather annoyed that science is dismissed. Not because we’re personally offended by it, but because, you know, we are scientists because we want to understand stuff and basically want to understand what reality is, how it works. And to have people around us just denying reality because it makes them uncomfortable or doesn’t fit in their philosophical views, or their or their political views, or religious views, is just deeply disturbing about human nature that people can be so disconnected from reality. And then, when it comes to practical matters, obviously that has consequences. If you ignore what the experts say because we don’t trust experts… Experts are more likely to be right than non-experts. And when it comes to matters of life and death, you know, ignoring what they’re telling you, has real consequences.

And right now I think people, a lot of people, are now taking it seriously who weren’t for a while. And you know, taking this outbreak seriously and are starting to pay attention to the scientists. I hope they continue to do so in terms of what the scientists are doing. I don’t think I’ve… I can’t recall any time when all the relevant scientists who have any, kind of, contribution to make are working on the same thing. They are throwing everything at this that they can, you know, where our lab is basically shut down because everything’s being shut down in our state. And in order to minimize spread, we were voluntarily shutting down already except for work on this virus and a few other critical projects. But anybody who has anything to offer is being pulled in. So everything that can be done is being done. It’s just the time scale is so short. That’s one of the reasons we wanted to drag it out.

Stump:

Let me ask it this way: Science has become so specialized and technical that it’s far outside the grasp of non-scientists and, perhaps, even scientists in other sub-disciplines. Right? And, so, we have to take it on authority. We have to trust. Why should we trust science? Particularly for, I think, for Christians and for other people of faith, that starts to sound idolatrous, perhaps, even, to put your trust in something other than God. But why should we trust you?

Schaffner:

I mean, there are different kinds of trust. You trust, you know, you trust that your auto mechanic has some idea how your car works because they’re trained in it, and they’ve demonstrated that they can fix your car…

When scientists reach a… When there’s a consensus in the field of science that they’ve reached after studying something for an extended period, they’re usually right. They’re almost always more or less right. Probably some refinements to be made, but they’re pretty much, they have a great track record. That’s the main reason for trusting the broad conclusions of science. It doesn’t mean that the latest story, latest headline about some scientific study that says that, you know, eating peas is bad for you should be taken seriously. Cause a lot of things get hyped up. A lot of it by the news media. Sometimes by, you know, press releases coming from scientific institutions. So you have to exercise discernment. And, you know, try to use some common sense that scientists as a whole, when they reach a conclusion, are probably right about stuff because that’s what they’re devoting their lives to doing is figuring these things out.

I have a couple of other thoughts about just this outbreak?

Stump:

Please, please.

Schaffner:

One is that it’s important to be trying to, sort of, thread the needle here in our own reactions to something like this because it’s so outside everyone’s experience. We’re in this weird, surreal situation now. Everything looks normal, but there’s this terrible threat coming. Should we say everything’s okay, or should we be terrified? And the reality is there’s some of each. For most people everything is going to be okay. Most people aren’t… Half the people who get this virus probably show no symptoms at all, and 80% of those who get sick are only mildly sick.

So, you know, life’s going to go on. The society is not going to collapse, you know, the food’s still going to be there and most people will be fine. On the other hand, there are also actually terrifying aspects to it that our healthcare system is probably going to be overloaded. You know, quite a few people are going to die, and we really need to take that seriously and react as if it were a really serious threat. So, you know, fear is very useful if it motivates you to do something. So, you know, you’re walking across the street, and you see your car coming. You should be afraid, and they’re in the car coming. So we should be afraid to the extent that we, you know, we act, we obey when the authorities tell us not to get together with other people and to try to limit contact.

But then we, then, there’s no point in letting that fear dominate our lives cause, you know, life is going to continue to go on. So the idea is to turn around and say, all right, I’ve done the right things. Now let me do my job, or watch TV, or whatever and just, you know, be with my family. 

Stump:

Right, good. 

Schaffner:

That’s my profound thought on that subject.

Stump:

You might have, you said, you might have a couple of other things to say. Was that both of them or you have one more?

Schaffner:

Oh, there’s one other thing is, I guess, as a society, we, you know, we pay respect to those who take on risks for the good of society. First responders. You know, firemen who rush to the fires and military who go to the sound of the gun. That’s what the healthcare people are doing right now. Nurses, and doctors, and EMTS, and anybody else who is, you know, in direct contact with patients is taking real personal risk. And they deserve our support, and they deserve us to do whatever we can to minimize, you know, this outbreak so that their lives aren’t as threatened. Their jobs are made more possible because they’re doing it for us.

[musical transition]

Stump:

During this time of social isolation, that doesn’t mean we have to remain isolated from each other in virtual spaces. If you’re looking for a place to interact with people about topics in science and faith, the BioLogos Forum is just such a virtual gathering place. No washing of hands required! We’ll have a thread specifically linked to this episode, and there are others that users have started about different facets of the coronavirus. It is a moderated space where people of all persuasions express themselves graciously. Find a link to it in the show notes.

Here is our final interview with Praveen Sethupathy. 

Interview Three: Praveen Sethupathy

Stump:

So here we are in the midst of this, or, perhaps, even at the beginning of this pandemic of the coronavirus, and there are a lot of viruses out there. I saw some number like 10 to the 31 as the total number of viruses there are on the planet right now, which, evidently, is more than the total number of stars there are in all the galaxies. What’s different about this one compared to the others? What’s so special about covid-19?

Sethupathy:

Well, so maybe it’s easier to start with: What are some of the features that it shares with other viruses so that we have some ground to stand on and then maybe think about what makes it a little different. So, fundamentally, a virus is just a piece of genetic material. This can be DNA or RNA, but it is a piece of genetic material that is, sort of, safely ensconced within a little protective case. And the fundamental goal of any virus, and this is true of coronavirus as it is of any other virus that we study and know about, is that it wants to replicate itself. It wants to make more copies of itself. What’s interesting about viruses is that it is unable to do so on its own, right. So if it were just left to its own devices without having a host to infect, it simply would die. It would not have the capacity to be able to replicate itself. And, so, this is why viruses so desperately need a host to enter into host cells and use the machinery that the host has, whether that host is a plant, or bacteria, or animals, or humans. It requires a host so that it can replicate itself.

Stump:

So how would then, is this a COVID-19 different from other viruses? What’s made it such a big deal about this?

Sethupathy:

Yeah, well, the reason why it’s a big deal is because it’s new. So that’s partly why it’s a big deal. Influenza was a big deal when it was new. We are just used to it now, and it has become a sort of a seasonal experience, and we even call it a seasonal flu. But it doesn’t affect us as much because our bodies are used to it. Not only have we developed a vaccine against it and have a pipeline in place to keep updating that vaccine as the virus mutates and evolves, but our bodies are also used to it. You know, we have a memory of what we’ve seen before. And that’s what we, sort of, refer to as gaining an immunity as a population toward viruses we’ve seen before. So part of what makes coronavirus that is causing this disease, COVID-19, so important to study right now, is that it’s new. We haven’t seen it on the viral landscape before. And because of its newness, we don’t have any antibodies in our body built up against it, and, certainly, we don’t have a vaccine that we have developed to target it.

Stump:

So do we expect that this will run its course and become like influenza, then, in the future once our exposure to it has been long enough to develop those things?

Sethupathy:

That does actually seem to be the prediction right now. If we go ahead and develop a vaccine against this and can bring it to the level where… I mean, if we, some of these things like SARS were completely eradicated due to severe quarantine measures. SARS was not really seen again, and that is a virus that is very closely genetically related to this coronavirus, to this novel coronavirus. So that’s a possibility. But what most seem to be predicting, out of an abundance of caution, is the likelihood that this will just become a seasonal infection that we have to worry about. And that in subsequent years with the development of a reasonably effective vaccine and the fact that we built up antibodies against it, it will not be so concerning the way that it is now.

Stump:

Okay. So can you give us some glimpse into how scientists study a vaccine like this? What does the process look like in a lab? Are they infecting mice, or something, or simply sequencing it to try to understand its history and how it spreads?

Sethupathy:

Yes, that there are a lot of different ways in which people are studying this virus right now, some of which, really, as you might imagine, just dictated by their expertise and the resources that they have at hand. One really important way of studying this virus is just to perform genomic sequencing. Understanding the full sequence of this virus is helpful for a number of reasons. One, it’s not enough to simply have sequenced one sample from one patient. This virus, like many others, mutates very quickly. We know why it mutates very quickly, but we don’t know where all it’s going to mutate.

And it will be important for us to keep track of how the virus is evolving so that we can better understand how to develop, you know, next generation vaccines and drugs. This is now something that we do routinely for influenza. And coronavirus, we’re hoping, is something we can put into that category. The more we understand about its genetic makeup the more effectively we may be able to design a vaccine. And the more effectively we may be able to design next generation vaccines as we study how the genetic sequence is changing in different populations across the world. So, just, from a standpoint of sequencing alone, it can be extraordinarily valuable for vaccine development and for tracking how it’s moving so that we can, you know, stay in step with it and that it doesn’t get too many steps ahead of us.

The other way in which people are studying this virus, just as another example, not really from a sort of sequencing or genomic perspective, but more from a cell biology perspective. And that is: If we could better understand how this virus actually gets inside of cells, it’s hijacking something we already have. And if we could figure out what it is that it’s hijacking, we might be able to target those molecules and make it harder for the virus to get in. In fact, there was a publication just a couple of days ago from a group in Germany that appeared to have identified the mechanisms by which it may be entering human cells. And one of the lucky aspects of that discovery is that it happens to be a molecule that is being hijacked for which a drug already exists and is FDA approved, not for coronavirus, but for something else all together. So we might be able to piggyback off of those discoveries and, you know, enhance the drug development for coronavirus.

Stump:

So you’re not directly involved in doing any of this research yourself, right?

Sethupathy:

I am not.

Stump:

But, presumably, you’re much closer to the science and understand what other scientists are saying. So, as a scientist, can you tell us how worried should we be? How serious is this from what you’ve seen in the science?

Sethupathy:

So, it is a serious concern, and it is something that as communities, as a nation, we, in my opinion and in the opinions of my colleagues who are much better versed in virology than I am, are sharing with me. And that is because the transmissibility of this virus is still somewhat of an unknown. There are different predictions out there, but, you know, out of an abundance of caution, I think it would be prudent for us to take it seriously and assume that the virus can be transmitted relatively easily. We have seen what’s happened in countries like Italy. And I think that should give us some serious pause about taking proactive measures as opposed to reactive measures.

The other thing that I’m hearing from my virology colleagues is that, increasingly, it is apparent that it may be asymptomatic people, particularly younger folks, who have the virus, they’re positive for the virus, but they are not really exhibiting a lot of the symptoms that we’ve come to associate with COVID-19. And this is because they may just have a more resilient immune system, or there may be some other features of youth that are protective. But these individuals can still transmit the disease. They can still pass on the disease to others. And we’re particularly concerned about the elderly in our communities because the case fatality rate, as they say, is substantially higher for those individuals that are 65 or above. So even though you could be asymptomatic, you may still be able to pass it on. That is why these social distancing measures, as we’ve come to call it, are so critical. Because, even if we feel alright, or we don’t have a fever, or we’re not exhibiting some of the more severe symptoms we’ve heard about, we may still be carriers. And, so, we need to be careful about not just ourselves but others in our community.

Stump:

So you’re not just a scientist, you’re also a Christian. And this is a good segue, then, of what our duty is to our fellow human beings, perhaps, in all of this. But any thoughts about where a coronavirus pandemic fits into the bigger picture for us as Christians? How might we, how might we understand the coronavirus and its impacts on our world through the eyes of faith? Any thoughts about that?

Sethupathy:

I have a number of different thoughts. I’ll share one. You know, we tend to talk about the viruses when a pandemic like this hits us or when the flu is particularly bad one season and the vaccine isn’t working well. Those are the times that we tend to talk about viruses in the lay community. And that’s understandable because, hopefully, we don’t have to interact too often with viruses that are pathogenic to us. But the reality is, as you alluded to in the beginning, Jim, there are 10 to the 31, or at least that’s one estimate out there, of viruses. And again, as you said, 10 million times more than the number of you know, estimated stars in the universe. This is an unfathomable number, and I think should immediately lead us to ask, why? Why in the world do we have 10 to the 31 viruses? I mean, what does that mean?

And, pretty quickly, when you start studying this, you realize that the vast majority of the viruses out there, vast, vast, vast majority, are not infecting humans or even other animals, but they’re infecting bacteria. And bacteria are also extraordinarily prevalent in the world, more so than we tend to appreciate, right? On the same order of magnitude as viruses and bacteria are absolutely critical for life as we know it. They are, as we say, primary producers, right? They take in-organic material and kind of help make organic material so that life as we know it can exist and humanity can exist in the way that we do. But bacteria are such prolific multipliers. If there was no check on bacteria, they would overtake the world. We wouldn’t exist. And, so, the vast majority of viruses actually seem to be present in order to keep the bacteria in check.

So I’m actually extraordinarily grateful that viruses exist because they’re keeping the bacteria in check so that I can exist on this planet. Right? And another way of, perhaps, thinking about it is that God’s creation is, sort of, in this balanced ecological niche. He’s creating these niches that are very balanced. You need bacteria for life, but, then, you need the viruses, also, to keep the bacteria in check so that they don’t overtake the world. And it’s the vast, vast, vast majority of viruses that are engaged in this kind of behavior, keeping the bacteria in check, allowing life to exist for us. So, suddenly it provides a very different perspective when we’re used to thinking about viruses as bad. And then when we realize that it’s an extraordinarily small slice of viruses that can even infect us and an even smaller set that are fatal. Then it gives us a different perspective on how viruses may actually be quite extraordinarily helpful for us in life as we know it.

Stump:

Interesting. Is it fair to compare that the way some people do the dynamic weather patterns that we have that are necessary for life to even exist but, then, means, occasionally, there’s going to be a hurricane or a tornado? So that somehow this is an effect of a bigger process that’s absolutely essential for life as we know it.

Sethupathy:

That’s exactly right. And I don’t think that’s an unfair analogy at all, you know. I think that there are actually lots of these kinds of examples in life, and it starts to teach us something possibly about life itself in the way that God has created this world. Everything good, and lovely, and beautiful, and wonderful, and awe-inspiring that we so appreciate and that we are so quick, as we should, to give thanks to God for. It’s the same stuff that is also leading to some of the pain that we don’t like. And the way that I think about that is even the decision that we make as human beings to love one another. We are social beings. We are relational beings. We’re made to be with each other, and love each other, and enter into loving relationships with one another.

But every time we do that, there’s a danger. There’s a danger that we may be hurt. There is a danger that we may be lied to, or we may be let down. And the pain that that can bring can be enormous. And, yet, time after time, generation after generation, era after era, epoch after epoch, we as human beings willfully enter into these relationships because the beauty, and the wonder, and the love that they offer us, I think, outweigh the challenges, the pain, and the suffering. We’re basically willing to endure that. And I think, in a way,  that’s sort of a way to understand the bigger, broader picture of life, right? That the beauty of life, that this arms race between bacteria and viruses allow, is possibly worth it to us and to God for the pain that it does also bring.

And I don’t mean to minimize that and the individual suffering that people experience—in no way, shape, or form mean to mitigate that whatsoever. It is real. And there is a calling upon our lives as Christians to alleviate that suffering, and mitigate that suffering, and be with one another through that pain and suffering. But there might be another… Also an opportunity here to, sort of, think about it more corporately in a bigger picture kind of way.

[musical interlude]

Stump:

So, presumably, God knew the possible effects of a natural system in which things like coronaviruses could come to be and cause the havoc that they do. And, yet, God thought it worthwhile anyway, that a world without such a possibility would rid the world of many other very beneficial things and perhaps not even be conducive for life itself. Viruses have a role to play in the good world God created. 

Maybe there’s a chance for us to see, in the midst of all this drama, how we as individuals fit into this bigger system as well. We too have been created with both the potential for doing great harm but also tremendous good. We might have natural impulses to respond with selfishness and fear, but we are capable of more than our natural impulses. What kinds of pain and suffering might we be able to relieve in others in our immediate contexts and circumstances? And how might we use the minds we’ve been endowed with to partner with God and his purposes for creation, to understand how the worst of the effects can be alleviated as quickly as possible? 

We are so thankful to scientists like these three we’ve talked to who are glorifying God through their work of investigating and understanding the natural world. 

This coronavirus outbreak feels, to us, like it is unprecedented, and, to be sure, it has upended the rhythms of our daily lives like we ourselves have never experienced. But we are not the first people who have confronted such issues. Throughout history, we have had to deal with disease and other disasters, and, perhaps, we can learn something from those who have gone before us.

There is a quote making its way around the internet from Martin Luther, who wrote a letter 500 years ago in the midst of an outbreak of plague. He said,

 “I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others.”

How we respond in these times, reveals much about our character. Wouldn’t it be great if the church showed that we of all people are concerned about the least of these, that our actions would demonstrate genuine love to our neighbors, even if that takes the form of self isolation and social distancing. 

May we take the science seriously, may we reflect Christ in our actions, and may God mercifully protect us.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from you and it helps other people find the show. Thanks.


Featured guests

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland teaches biochemistry and chemistry at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. He grew up near Kennedy Space Center and wanted to be a paleontologist in the second grade. He received a dual B.S. in Chemistry and Technical Writing from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in Biomolecular Structure and Design from the University of Washington. His research uses the rules of chemistry to redesign immune system proteins. In 2013 he received an Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) grant from BioLogos to write A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford University Press, 2016). He lives near Seattle with his wife Laurie and his children Sam, Aidan, Brendan, and Benjamin.
Stephen Schaffner

Stephen Schaffner

Stephen Schaffner is a senior staff scientist and computational biologist at the broad Institute of Harvard and MIT where he uses the tools of population genetics to study human genetics and infectious disease, including viral, malaria, and host genetics. Schaffner has developed techniques for detecting the effects of positive selection on genetic variation, carried out model-based studies of human demographic history, and developed tools for identifying recent common ancestry in malaria parasites. He is also a visiting scientist at the Harvard Chan school of public health.

Praveen Sethupathy

Praveen Sethupathy

Praveen is a Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Director of the Center for Vertebrate Genomics at Cornell University, where he directs a research lab focused on genomic approaches to understand human health and disease. He received his BA degree from Cornell University and his PhD in Genomics from the University of Pennsylvania. After completing a post-doctoral fellowship at the National Human Genome Research Institute under the mentorship of Dr. Francis Collins, he moved in 2011 to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics. The same year he was selected by Genome Technology as one of the nation's top 25 rising young investigators in genomics. In 2017, he returned to Cornell University as an Associate Professor. Praveen has authored over 95 peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals and has served as a reviewer for over 35 different journals. Recent honors include a faculty merit award for outstanding teaching and mentoring and the prestigious American Diabetes Association Pathway To Stop Diabetes Research Accelerator, which is awarded to only three people per year. Praveen has been an invited speaker for the Veritas Forum, has served on the advisory board for the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion, and serves on the Board of Directors for BioLogos. He lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife and three children.

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