A Viral Epidemic in Waiting and How to Avert It: Embracing Materials Virology

The flu vaccine this year in the US has only been 36% effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with several thousand human fatalities reported so far. US is going through one of its worst flu seasons in recent times. The devil is the dreaded flu strain, H3N2.

Influenza claims 290000 to 650000 human lives worldwide annually (World Health Organization). Flu vaccines are modified each year according to strain predictions. Defense mechanism in the strains can, however, overcome these vaccines. In general, influenza viruses have high mutation rates, a fact that has, so far, kept the arrival of a universal flu vaccine at bay.

If the above does not scare you (I am sure it does!), let us talk about ‘zombie pathogens’. Imagine giant, complex viruses that thrived freely on life forms several thousands of years ago, but have been hibernating ever since in the polar caps. Modern lifeforms, including us, have not interacted with these pathogens leaving us without any clue of how to tackle them, in case the viruses thaw out. As the latest research suggests, this imagination might soon be a harsh reality, with unidentified deadly epidemics pushing humanity to the verge of cataclysm. As climate change is gradually warming the Earth, polar caps are melting. Recent surveys in the permafrost advocate that unknown, giant viruses are creeping back to life. The 2016 anthrax outbreak in Siberia comes to mind. Unfortunately, the state-of-affairs will only worsen going forward.

In an article recently published in MRS Bulletin, I have highlighted the gravity of this concern and, as a possible solution, have envisioned a research field at the interface of materials science and virology that can help us approach the above issue in a timely manner. Equipped with materials diagnostics tools such as X-ray scattering, materials virologists should aim to probe permafrost virus assemblies to reveal insights into their finer structures. Scattering virus crystals at Siberian temperatures can reveal vital details into how these pathogens interact with each other and with other life forms, besides ways of ‘silencing’ them. Materials virology, I believe, can be a viable and an exciting career path for young materials scientists who can play a crucial role in allaying one of the greatest threats that mankind currently faces. The community of materials virologists shall also, hopefully, be able to inform and improve climate change-related policy-making around the planet.   

That the science community has been conscious about greenhouse emissions is highlighted by intense debates as early as the beginning of 20th century surrounding the possible role of CO2 in global warming. Svante Arrhenius, Alexander Graham Bell and John Tyndall, besides others, were aware of the impact of carbon emissions on global temperatures. They, however, did not see the rate of emissions at that time to be a source of concern for, at least, the next few thousand years. It was thought that oceans will take up the extra emitted CO2, balancing the equation. Regrettably, today the situation is one of despair. Emissions have gone unchecked and largely ignored. CO2 uptake by oceans is a slow process, meaning that the gas will remain in the atmosphere for centuries, furthering warming, even if the emissions are stopped with immediate effect.

As an epilogue, I feel that climate change highlights a graver, underlying issue: our over-reliance on evidence and quantification of impact. In the case of climate change, for example, we were focused at measuring the direct impact of CO2 on the climate. Since the gas was still in the accumulation phase and low in amount, impact was not apparent, delaying any serious assessment. No doubt, search for evidence constitutes scientific method – the hallmark of mankind’s forays into understanding the universe. But then, why did CO2 trump us? How could we have foreseen that a carbon onslaught was on the way, given the lack of evidence in the last century? 

How do we know before we know?

Ahmad R. Kirmani


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