Coronaviruses in creation
Does the recent coronavirus outbreak support evolution?
Published: 6 February 2020 (GMT+10)
There is a new virus sweeping the world. Most people are calling it ‘coronavirus’. It was first noticed in Wuhan, China and is already popping up in multiple countries. Many people have died. What are we supposed to think about it? Do viruses support evolution? Can we explain them in a creation context? Can this be part of the ‘very good’ creation? Hold onto your hats, for I am about to turn what you think about viruses on its head.
Most viruses are beneficial
It comes as a shock to many people when they hear it, but most viruses are good for you. Have you heard that there are as many bacteria in and on your body as there are cells in your body? That is true. But it is also true that you have more viruses in your gut than you have bacteria! In fact, the viral population (called the ‘virome’1) plays an important role in regulating the number and types of bacteria in your body.2 Without them, we might be rapidly consumed by the hungry little bacteria that live in our intestines.
Have you ever gone swimming in the ocean? Then you were swimming in a highly concentrated bacterial soup. There are lots of bacteria in ocean water, with many different species. But, as in your gut, there are more viruses than bacteria and they probably play a role in maintaining and balancing the bacterial population in oceanic waters. Could we even have fish if there were no viruses? That is an interesting question that some enterprising young scientist might be able to answer one day.
Have you ever gone swimming in a lake? Then you were swimming in a soup of bacteria and viruses. Did that lake have ducks, swans, or geese swimming about? Then you were swimming among influenza viruses. In fact, aquatic waterfowl carry all possible types of the influenza virus, including the ones that do not infect humans. These viruses get introduced to the water as the birds defecate. But the presence of the virus usually does not produce disease in these birds,3 or in you, even though you are getting them in your eyes, ears, and mouth. An evolutionist might say the reason the birds do not (usually) get sick is because the two have been at war with one another for millions of years and they have settled down to a truce, where the virus does not kill the host and the host gives the virus a place to live. From a creation perspective, the influenza virus probably has a beneficial role for the birds, but it is doubtful that anyone has looked for it yet.
Some viruses might have escaped from the genome
Did you know that your cells produce many of the same things that viruses are made of? We make protein coats, we copy DNA and RNA, we have mechanisms of moving DNA to different parts of the genome, etc. Thus, some viruses might have originated in normal cellular operations.4 The parts are all there, sometimes the parts are assembled into things that almost appear virus-like. All it would take is for a few accidental changes and the assemblage could get out of hand and ‘go viral’.
Some viruses might have escaped their initial design constraints
But not all viruses are genome-like. Many viruses that produce disease look like they are designed to do what they do. Where did these come from? Well, if a virus exists that is designed to infect the cells of a bacterium, or a mouse, or a person, there are probably checks and balances in that system. If one of those checks fails, the virus might be able to reproduce much faster than it was originally designed to do. This would result in disease. Thus, a ‘beneficial’ virus might be able to turn into a dangerous one. It might just take a few small mutations, like maybe a change in a cellular recognition factor that prevents the host cells from detecting, and therefore regulating, the virus.
Viruses that jump species are especially dangerous
We can now discuss the coronavirus, a virus that does not belong in humans. Viruses that jump between species are called zoonotics (notice the word ‘zoo’ in that name). We have lots of evidence for zoonotic viruses, including influenza,5 the coronavirus family (this new virus, SARS, and MERS6), and HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). All of these cause disease in humans. Some of them have persisted in the human population for a very long time. Happily, however, many new viruses burn themselves out. Viruses will also weaken over time. As they multiply, they pick up mutations and sometimes, those mutations will weaken them to the point where they are no longer transmitted. This is not always the case, though, and some viruses, like HIV or the human cold virus (yet another coronavirus), can continue to propagate despite picking up mutations. It depends on many different factors and no two viruses are alike.
Emerging viruses are a real threat
The human race has been struck with devastating epidemics throughout its history. Some of those, like the black death, are well characterized (this was caused by a bacterium spread by fleas). Others leave us scratching our heads. All we know is that multiple ancient kingdoms, civilization, and cities suffered through massive episodes of disease and death. Sometimes the records allow us to make an educated guess what caused the disease, but this is not common.
The initial creation had no disease (see our Death and Suffering Q&A), yet diseases have risen over the past six thousand years. If they rose once, there is no reason to expect another viral contagion to not appear in the future. This is not a reason to fear, but it should help us to soberly assess our sometimes tenuous position on this earth.
We have created all sorts of safety nets to prevent the spread of infection and the world is beginning to react more swiftly to emerging threats. Quarantines, hand washing, and vaccinations are all part of that strategy, depending on the severity, the risk, and whether or not we have figured out a way to vaccinate against them. Consider the most recent Ebola outbreak in Africa. We spent many millions of dollars helping those people through that terrible time and a worldwide outbreak was prevented, again. The coronavirus outbreak currently sweeping across China is another example. Mercifully, the death rate, which started at about 20%, has decreased by about half, probably due to doctors getting better at treating the disease. But even a rate of 1 or 2% would equate to many millions of people if it got out of control and became as common as, say, the common cold. But the scientific community responded very quickly. In a short time, multiple gene sequences for the virus were completed and posted to public databases and electron microscopes produced pictures of what we were dealing with. The speed of this was unprecedented.
The future of the coronavirus
If this virus outbreak follows the course of previous ones, the coronavirus might burn itself out. This is apparently what happened to the human H1N1 influenza virus that swept across the world in 1917, killing millions of people. It lasted for 40 years before disappearing. It was reintroduced from a stored laboratory sample in 1976 and lasted another 33 years before disappearing again during the 2009–2010 swine H1N1 pandemic, which was also not a particularly lethal virus. The later versions did not have the lethal nature as the earlier ones, and the fact that the human H1N1 could not persist in the human population is good evidence that it was undergoing genetic entropy. In fact, the virus was picking up over 14 mutations per year while it was active and more than 10% of its genome had mutated before it went extinct.7 This also matched previously published computer simulations.8
But the coronavirus is not the flu. We also are not certain where or how this virus originated, although it apparently came from bats, perhaps circuitously. Either way, it will have to be treated very carefully and our health care systems must treat it as a serious and immediate threat. We cannot wait decades for genetic entropy to take its toll.
How should we react?
Under the creation/curse model, there is no reason to expect new diseases to not emerge. Yet, when one does appear, we should soberly assess the risk and take proper precautions. We should also always be willing to help those in need, knowing that it could always have been us in that situation. Charitable giving, preferably though a Christian aid agency, is always an option. But we should also not let opportunities for sharing the gospel slip through our fingers, and very often, when a person realizes how fragile life actually is, they are more accepting of the hope offered by Jesus Christ.
Viruses are part of God’s created order. We can see that many of them play beneficial roles. Yet, we live in a sin-cursed world with much suffering, death, and disease. Some viruses have become dangerous, causing untold suffering across humanity throughout our history. These have forced us to develop innovative strategies to try and keep them in check. God has not promised us long life, nor good health. But He has promised to redeem this sin-cursed world and our disease-wracked bodies and so our hope is not here on this earth anyway. Let us look to Him for hope, for our redemption draws near.
References and notes
- This is a good summary of the virome, but from an evolutionary source so use with appropriate caution: sciencedirect.com/topics/immunology-and-microbiology/human-virome. Return to text.
- Here is a paper from a biblical Creation-Fall perspective about the important function of the mammalian virome: Francis, J.W., Ingle, M., and Wood, T.C., Bacteriophages as beneficial regulators of the mammalian Microbiome, Proc. Int. Conf. Creationism 8:152–157, 2018; creationicc.org. Return to text.
- Barber, M.R. et al., Association of RIG-I with innate immunity of ducks to influenza, PNAS 107(13):5913–5918, 2010. Return to text.
- Terborg, P., The ‘VIGE-first hypothesis–how easy it is to swap cause and effect, J. Creation 27(3):105–112, 2013. (VIGE = Variation-Inducing Genetic Element) Return to text.
- Ma, W., Kahn, R.E., and Richt, J.A., The pig as a mixing vessel for influenza viruses: human and veterinary implications, J. Mol. Genet. Med. 3(1):158–166, 2008. Return to text.
- A coronavirus (similar to the new coronavirus), the cause of Middle East respiratory syndrome. Return to text.
- Carter, R.W., and Sanford, J.C., A new look at an old virus: mutation accumulation in the human H1N1 influenza virus since 1918, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 9:42, 2012. Return to text.
- Brewer, W., Smith, F.D., and Sanford, J.C., Information loss: potential for accelerating natural genetic attenuation of RNA viruses; in: Marks II, R.J., Behe, M.J., Dembski, W.A., Gordon, B., and Sanford, J.C. (Eds.), Biological Information—New Perspectives, World Scientific, Singapore, pp. 369–384, 2013. Return to text.