COVID-19: Small does it

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Maria Gklotsou, freelance medical writer on Kolabtree, writes about how the COVID-19 is a ‘war of the small’.

Looking at the screen for the death toll of the day, sadly a regular habit nowadays, trying to assess the danger friends and family, scattered across the globe, are in, l cannot help but think that this is the war of the small and it is winning.

Many years ago, a few weeks into Biology, University of Crete, our professor entered the room and asked us to give a definition of a living thing. When a well-versed professor comes with a stupid question, you should know there is a trap. But the arrogance of our eighteen years made us laugh. We laughed of course, life is evident we argued; besides we were Biology students (i.e. the science of bio=life), of course we could define it! After a few failed attempts to make one comprehensive definition of life, that encompasses all that we consider living and exclude the rest (the tree but not the wood; the plants and the animals together) we realized that life is not as self-evident as we thought.

So, we quit trying to come up with one definition for life and conceded to compile the minimal set of parameters that have to coexist in order to define that something is living. We came up with four: exchange of elements with the environment (be it food, oxygen, debris- metabolism); ability to grow; ability to adjust; ability to reproduce. We were really proud that our intense brainstorming yielded an answer but then our Professor said: “a virus ….is a virus a living thing?” According to our list, no, it is not…out of the four it can do only one: reproduce, but it does it so efficiently that we now have a whole planet in panic for a bag of inert materials, (some DNA/RNA and some proteins), not self-sufficient, that somehow exists but does not live, communicates with the environment but does not exchange anything and certainly does not grow nor does it adjust. On the contrary, it commands its environment to cater to its needs that is to multiply and propagate. That is all it does: multiply and propagate. If the environment is unfavorable it stays out of sight, silent and waits for the opportune moment to seize control. It is often said that when you acquire a virus it never really goes away, it stays with you forever, hidden in deep corners that drugs cannot reach, embedded in your genetic code, awaiting to subdue your whole elaborate multicellular machinery to its bidding, make copies and invade others.

So here we are now, a small bag of genetic code, that made a small, under the radar, entrance in a (relatively) small province of China, making small headlines as an exotic virus that Chinese could not handle, making small inauspicious steps to the neighboring countries, until the small fire started to burn in the backwards of the West and it was not small anymore. Some small countries that took early small steps and measures got big results, so far; while big countries that took no early steps but made bold gestures later face big disasters. Big and strong is not the winner in this war. Small and humble before a small living entity that brought humanity to its knees seems to be winning. This is the war of the small and the underdogs seem to have understood it all too well. 

 

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About Author

Maria Gklotsou is a Singapore-based Molecular Biologist working part-time as a medical writer and translator since 2004.

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