Illustration credit: Science Photo Library
On September 6, 2069, Professor George Gao was anxiously awaiting the results of his granddaughter May Gao’s genome sequencing in his biological laboratory. It was the peak period of the global pandemic of the new coronavirus (2069-nCoV). The professor was very anxious to know whether May ’s genome contains 2069-nCoV susceptibility genes.
"Di, di, di", after three sounds, Professor Gao quickly rushed to the computer to check May's sequencing results, "chromosome 4, negative", "chromosome 9, negative", "chromosome 18, negative." "This is great, there are no susceptibility genes—NGWs, May does not have susceptibility 2069-nCoV genes or physique, she is basically safe." George's family was waiting at his side to celebrate.
Since the last of May’s fever symptoms, the whole Gao family had been praying and everyone was worried about whether May had been infected with 2069-nCoV. According to the current epidemiological data from 5 million people worldwide, the mortality rate of 2069-nCoV infection is as high as 10%, which is much higher than that of 2019-nCoV half a century ago.
Professor Gao has been communicating closely with colleagues in London, New York, Tokyo, New Delhi, Melbourne, and the Antarctic Chinese Science Town over the past few months. The results of global epidemiological data analysis have become increasingly prominent. The fact is that this 2069-nCoV will only infect the genes in the No. 4, No. 9 and No. 18 chromosomes, known as "Non-sensitive to Global Warming (NGWs)". The characteristics of people with NGWs are that they are indifferent to global warming and do not consider the future consequences of their current behavior. According to George's estimation, 10% of the entire human population currently possessed such genes, that is 1 billion people were susceptible to 2069-nCoV.
May was inspired by the results of her gene sequencing, and her mental state gradually improved. She watched curiously as her grandfather masterfully operated various data analysis software programs and asked, "Grandpa, when can we go out to fly a kite?"
"It's not working right now, and Beijing has only closed the city for 2 months. I don't know when it will be unlocked!"
"When will it be unlocked? I really want to go to London to watch the robot show", "uh, but my classmates are always saying that this time, the virus is a British virus, I don't want to go there… is this true, Grandfather?"
"The first case of 2069-nCoV infection this time is indeed an English patient, but we cannot say that it is a "British virus." Any pandemic of a virus should not be blamed on a certain country/person—this is the responsibility of all humanity. Like this virus, it was originally sleeping in the permanently frozen soil of the Arctic Circle, but 40 years ago, the Arctic summer began to be ice-free. Scientists estimate that soon, there will be no ice in the Arctic during autumn. When the ice and snow melt, afterwards, the virus will wake up."
"Why is it so serious this time? My friends in the US and the UK are so discouraged—they can't stand the blockade and isolation at all! They also don't like wearing masks very much."
"I also just got the news a few days ago. This time, the virus is a multipartite virus. This means once it infects the human body, it will break down 21 components, including protein coats and RNAs. Each component in human cells reproduces silently, that is they will not cause any discomfort or infection symptoms; when half of all human cells are infected, those 21 components will suddenly assemble active viruses in the human body, causing large-scale infections. From mild symptoms of dyspnea to suffocation, it takes only 10 hours."
"Grandpa, don't talk about it, I'm so scared, how is this like fiction in our textbook, isn't fiction fake?"
"Sweetie, but this time, it is true. New York and New Delhi have become human purgatories..."
George turned off images of riots in New York and New Delhi sent by the Beijing police force.
"Do you really mean there will be 100 million people who die? What can we do?"
Professor Gao was lost in thought and sighed softly: "Stopping warming is the key to preventing viruses like 2069-nCoV from waking up in the Arctic and Antarctic."
"I heard the teacher say that it is possible to change people's genes through gene editing, so that people will not be infected; is it okay if we help vulnerable people get rid of NGWs?"
George glanced at May gratifiedly. Although this little girl was 80 years younger than him, she was not one bit short of wisdom.
"Yes, this is a good idea. This is an effective solution discussed by scientists, a possible solution before the effective vaccine comes out," Professor Gao replied, albeit not very firmly.
"Why didn't you do it?" May was slightly excited and blinked her big eyes swiftly.
"The modification of the entire human genome is too expensive for most ordinary people to afford; and it is very time-consuming, at least 1-3 years; and the latent period of this virus is 3 months, when the first patient was confirmed in London in June, the entirety of human society had already been exposed to the 'viral rain'. Therefore, the dilemma we face is that even if human genes could be modified, it is very likely that people will not be able to wait for its effectiveness.
"More importantly, these people with NGWs do not like science at all, and they often have an instinctive distaste for technological advancement. For example, former President Tebukao II of the United States was seriously infected with an Arctic norovirus. That’s happened in 2059, when you were not born yet.” Professor Gao continued to explain.
"Then can we modify all NGWs at the end of this pandemic, so that we are no longer afraid of all the viruses." May was clearly full of confidence in the idea and shouted with excitement.
"But, my child, there are more than 1 million viruses that cause zoonotic diseases on Earth, and 230,000 unknown viruses are waking up in the Arctic and Antarctic. Although we modify a gene to prevent a new virus, it’s useless in the case of another novel virus; and the entire human genome has only 23,000 protein-encoding genes. Are we going to modify all the human genes? "
Professor Gao felt ridiculous about this crazy idea. If all genes of a human were modified, is the person still a human? George remembered his colleague Professor Huang's painful release of his daughter Yuna to the ocean.
"No, absolutely not!" George said to himself. "The only way for us is to coexist with the virus, taking good care of the Earth and to be gentle with every life form on the planet!" At this time, George heard a voice from a distance—"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need but not every man’s greed."
May was a little upset, and seemed to become depressed because she could not save the lives of human beings.
However, this time, May learned new knowledge through chatting with her grandfather and realized the importance of climate action. She decided to share the idea of saving humans with children of the same age all over the world through the UN cloud platform next month.
The title is "Action now, save the future of mankind and your favorites!"
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THE STORY BEHIND: COVID-69
Jianguo Gao reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale.
There are three exciting scientific signs of progress and one teleplay that inspired me in writing this fiction. One is the unprecedented knowledge of human genomes. We have come to know exquisite detail underlying our genetics and identified many crucial genes related to physical, physiological, and mental health. The second inspiration was how virologists have discovered mega-viruses inhabiting the Arctic and Qinghai-Tibet Plateau that we still know little about. The third is also inspired by virologists who discovered multipartite viruses. The fourth inspiration is a marvelous teleplay, Westworld, released by HBO in which the human future is depicted as a metaphor. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is indeed everyone’s concern, but as an ecologist, I worry that our future world is extremely vulnerable to unknown virus outbreaks that might be intensified by global warming. For example, there are more and more hurricanes under a warming climate that could accelerate global virus cycle.
Jianguo Gao is an ecologist who focuses on plant ecophysiology, ecosystem ecology and plant evolution. After receiving a Ph.D. from CAS (Guangzhou), he moved to Shanghai and Beijing where he became an independent research scientist. He is a total science geek and loves cultural diversity and biodiversity.
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