The ancient Israelites’ diet consisted of very little meat, and most of that came from animals they raised. That was not true in the rest of the world. For many people in China and Africa, survival meant hunting animals and using them for food. We now know that many of the animals people ate were intermediate hosts for viruses. A virus can exist for many generations in a wild animal and mutate until it can jump to human populations, creating zoonotic diseases. The list of viral and bacterial diseases that have originated in wildlife grows constantly. A partial list includes SARS, MERS, Ebola, AIDS, Zika, Lyme Disease, rabies, swine flu, and COVID-19.
Wet markets, common in parts of Asia and Africa, are a significant source of zoonotic diseases. There animals, including rats, snakes, birds, bats, and monkeys, are kept in cages and killed when people purchase them for food. The filthy environment allows saliva, urine, and feces to become mixed with the blood of animals slaughtered on the spot. Experts say 376 wildlife species are known hosts to zoonotic pathogens, and at least 700,000 different viruses have the potential to jump to human populations. Christian Walzer, executive director of health for the Wildlife Conservation Society, calls wet markets “cauldrons of contagion.”
In Old Testament times, the Jews had very strict rules about what meat they could eat and how to prepare it. One of the priest’s jobs was to inspect the meat that people consumed to make sure it conformed to specific rules preventing zoonotic diseases. That was the world in which Christianity began, and early Christians benefitted from the rules they inherited. The instruction of the apostles was not to eat blood or animals that had been strangled. (See Acts 15:20,29 and Acts 21:25.)
In Acts 10:11-16, we read the account of God telling Peter, “What God has cleansed you should not call common.” The message was that all people are precious to God, but it also implied that there was no longer religious significance to eating the meat of various animals. The dietary laws that God gave Israel centuries before were “nailed to the cross” of Christ (Colossians 2:13-17). However, what is religiously acceptable is not always biologically advisable.
It seems that the battle of the 21st century may be zoonotic diseases caused by eating animals that carry viruses to which humans are not immune. There were good hygienic reasons for the instructions God gave to ancient Israel.
With so much concern about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, the forgotten virus is Human Immunodeficiency Virus, causing AIDS.
In 1981, the Center For Disease Control established the term “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome” or AIDS. The disease was initially found among gay men and had been transferred to humans from monkeys. AIDS spread rapidly and caused many deaths. In 1885, Dr. Mathilde Krim and the National AIDS Research Foundation merged to form amfAR to battle AIDS. In 1995 the FDA approved a protease inhibiter, a new class of drugs that reduced the AIDS fatalities. By 2006 mother to child HIV transmission in the United States had declined to less than 2%. All that is progress, but not a cure.
Doctors are still treating AIDS cases with medicines that are a means of control. The disease continues to be a worldwide pandemic. In 2019, 1.7 million people became newly infected with HIV. Today, 38 million people are living with HIV. There were 770,000 deaths due to AIDS in 2019, and HIV rates are rising. Stem-cell transplant is making strides toward a cure, but research is slow and expensive. The organization amfAR has invested $550 million in programs aiming for a cure.
The story of AIDS is very similar to the story of COVID-19. Both were contracted initially as a result of human activity with animals. A virus may be inactive in an animal and very active in a human. Lifestyle is a major issue in both HIV and COVID-19. If humans would follow the instructions God has given us in His Word, neither of these viruses would be active in human populations. In both cases, a total cure is unlikely, especially for those of us with limited incomes.
The forgotten virus, HIV, doesn’t make headlines in the media, but it continues to be an issue for millions of people. That fact should send a message that applies to the world we live in today. We should learn from our previous mistakes and understand that. We should not have to go through one pandemic after another before realizing that God’s rules for relationships of all kinds have a purpose. We should recognize the truth of Jeremiah’s prayer: “I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.”
Many years ago, the daughter of a friend of mine had a severe reaction to a vaccination that left her brain-damaged and physically incapacitated. Many of the family’s friends refused to have their children vaccinated because of this. Several of the children contracted diseases that vaccines have could have prevented. In 1998 there was great concern about whether the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine produced autism. Now with the drive to create a COVID-19 vaccine, people are saying they will refuse to use it. Refusing to use vaccines is bad science.
Many people who oppose vaccinations do so by saying that God designed the human body, and adding materials such as vaccines suggests that God’s work is not adequate. If we carry that idea to its logical conclusion, you would never use an antibiotic or any immune therapy. Parents have even refused to give insulin to a diabetic child with tragic results.
The starting point of rejecting vaccinations was a 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. He claimed to prove that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine had caused autism in children. Wakefield managed to get his research into a peer-reviewed medical journal. He appeared before congress and did a 60 Minutes TV show as well as several British TV shows. It turned out the Wakefield’s claimed study was a scam.
Special interests had paid Wakefield a large amount of money to find evidence they could use in a suit against vaccine manufacturers. The claimed autism evidence was faked. The problem was that the medical community did not follow scientific rules in analyzing Wakefield’s claims. Wakefield was stripped of his medical license because his research did not follow scientific methods and used none of the required safeguards for research of this kind.
Refusing to use vaccines is bad science. Vaccines stimulate the body to produce an immune response to defeat a selected virus. There is no substitute for what the body has built into it. Most of us take an aspirin or a vitamin pill to stimulate the body to solve a perceived problem. My old doctor used to say he never cured anyone of anything. He simply found ways to make the body solve a problem itself.
I have had a severe reaction to bee stings and hay fever reactions to alfalfa. I can take medications to stop those reactions, and without those medications, a bee could kill me. When I was a child, I had severe reactions to sulfa drugs, which threatened my life on one occasion. Any of us can react to a medication or a natural substance, and sometimes this reaction can kill us. My friends eventually lost their child to the reaction she had to the vaccine. It was a tragedy and brought great pain to them. Such an incident is rare, but it does happen.
We raised an adopted child whose biological mother had measles during her pregnancy. He is mentally challenged, blind from cerebral palsy, and wheelchair-bound. If his mother had taken the vaccine that killed my friend’s child, my son Tim would have had none of his problems. Refusing to use vaccines is bad science, and it can have dire consequences. I don’t know all the answers, but God has allowed us to have medical tools, and refusing to use them is not a solution.
The COVID-19 virus has been too lethal to ignore. This pandemic makes us realize that there are many viruses out there, and the current one is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible. As early as AD 165 to 180, pandemics killed massive numbers of people. Smallpox killed 5 million, and bubonic plague killed 25 million on four different occasions starting in 541. Researchers today are attempting to catalog links between animal viruses and human illness. They estimate that there are probably 1.6 million animal viruses yet to be discovered in mammal and bird populations and that 827,000 of them could cause disease in humans.
Viruses are part of the natural world in which we live. They serve useful purposes in aiding animal digestion, reproduction, and elimination of wastes. The problem is that each animal has its own set of viruses suited for that animal’s diet and living conditions. If an animal’s virus jumps into another species with a different diet and living conditions, the results can be destructive. That is the connection between animal viruses and human illness. Most of the viruses we know about came into the human population from rodents, including rats, bats, birds, chimps, and mosquitos. Some have jumped through several animals such as bats giving the virus to cattle and camels, which gave it to humans.
The Old Testament laws had health restrictions, which made virus transmission less of a problem. People were also not in such proximity to one another or to animals that had destructive viruses. Living in very arid conditions reduced disease transmission, and the dietary laws worked against most virus transmission. When you read through Deuteronomy and Leviticus, you see elaborate precautions that we now understand had hygienic benefits to minimize viral transmission.
In the New Testament, many of these rules were continued. There was a prohibition against drinking blood, and the increased use of baking and boiling foods contributed to a low virus transmission rate. Moral rules that reduced the spread of disease included the elimination of polygamy and polyandry and the strong condemnation of prostitution. In time, the keeping of exotic pets and the acceptance of foods previously forbidden to Israel tended to thwart human attempts to fight disease.
God has given us the capacity to understand viruses and the connection between animal viruses and human illness. God has also given us the tools to control these virus issues. He has also given us hope for something better. Will we use the tools and techniques God gave us to stop the pandemics, or will we open our culture to more viral events in the future? Time will tell.
For the 51 years of this ministry, we have confronted religious anti-science rhetoric. Our critics are those who feel that science is an enemy and that you can’t be a good Christian and embrace science. We are now in a period when the issue of whether people can meet together for worship services has become an issue of science and politics. Some politicians oppose churches resuming worship services saying there is strong scientific evidence that it will expose participants to the COVID-19 virus. Many religious leaders insist that this is an attempt by the government to restrict religion. They say that this scientifically-based objection is destroying the right of people to worship together.
In previous articles, we have pointed out that a great deal of ignorance is involved in rejecting science. According to the dictionary, science is knowledge. Knowledge is always neutral. The critical thing is how we use it. When new scientific knowledge gave us lasers, the question was how we would use lasers. Would they be weapons that cause massive destruction, or would they be medical tools to heal eyes?
We now understand how the COVID-19 virus spreads from one person to another. Will we use this knowledge to stop the progression of the illness, or will we use this virus to destroy whole masses of people? The bubonic plague from 1347-1351 killed 200 million people, which was nearly half of Europe’s population. Religious anti-science rhetoric today has the potential to create a catastrophe.
It isn’t our knowledge about the COVID-19 virus that is a threat to freedom or to worship. The reality is that science will eventually develop a vaccine that will allow everyone to worship together. Smallpox was killing 400,000 people a year in Europe, and it only stopped when scientists developed a vaccine. It is hypocritical for religious people to vilify science while they: 1) enjoy modern technology in their entertainment 2) go to medical facilities for treatment of disease, 3) use scientific advancements to grow and prepare their food, 4) use new scientific discoveries in their businesses, and 5) use science in their homes to improve their standard of living.
Proverbs 8 makes it clear that God has used science (wisdom) in all He has done. Psalms 19 and 139 refer to God’s creation, and Romans 1:19-20 points out that science reveals God’s existence through the things He has made. The following verses, Romans 1:21-32, point out that human moral and political choices cause the pain and destruction we see in our world.
Christianity doesn’t need to violate social distancing to worship and to practice our faith. James 1:27 defines true religion, and Jesus made it clear that He is there when just two people come together in His name (Matthew 18:20). First Timothy 6:20 tells Christians to avoid scams and religious claims called science. Ignore the religious anti-science rhetoric and know that God and science are friends. Don’t listen to politicians and religious hucksters and rely on evidence and the message of proven researchers. Join together in prayer and worship in our homes on Zoom, YouTube, Facebook, or whatever method you choose. Rejoice that, through science, God has given us new ways to come together, encourage each other, and glorify Him even in the middle of a pandemic.
What are you doing during this time of being forced to stay in your dwelling alone, maintaining social distancing? Do you feel like we are pandemic refugees?
Thanks to technology, there are many options available. We all have time to talk on the phone to family and friends. There are books to read, puzzles to do, clean up projects to take care of, and time to check on people we can help. Checking on folks by phone is easy and available to all of us. We can even send needed items using our credit card and the shipping that most suppliers provide. As the weather gets warmer, we can do outside projects that we have long neglected.
It is disturbing that a large percentage of our population has used this time to immerse themselves in various kinds of drugs. According to The Week (April 17, 2020, page 16) alcohol sales are up 55% with online sales up 243%. Cannabis stores report their sales are up 130%. Our culture has moved away from faith and belief in God and turned to “Survival of the fittest.” From that perspective, this whole experience is a disaster and the only answer is to use drugs to numb your mind to what you can’t control. For those with faith in God and a belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ, this is a time full of unique opportunities to serve others. It is an opportunity to become part of a solution to a global problem.
For Christians, instead of feeling like pandemic refugees, we have the assurance of God’s word. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea … the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalms 46:1-2, 7).
It is self-evident that we are all impacted by something called a “virus.” What are viruses, and what is their purpose?
The first clue about viruses was in 1898 when scientists discovered that the cause of foot and mouth disease in livestock was something smaller than any bacteria. Because viruses are about 100 times smaller than bacteria, they could not be detected until electron microscopes were developed in 1931. Since viruses were too small to be filtered out, scientists initially thought they were liquids. They were given the name “virus” which comes from the Latin word for poison.
Later, scientists discovered that a virus is a protein (DNA or RNA) molecule enclosed in a capsid covered by a protective layer of fat, or lipids. The virus in and of itself is inert and unable to reproduce. So what is their purpose? When they come in contact with living cells, they insert their genetic material into the host, so the cell now produces viral protein. This may produce harmful and life-threatening results. Among the illnesses generated by viruses are the common cold, influenza, smallpox, chickenpox, herpes, shingles, AIDS, polio, rabies, Ebola, and others.
If the protein is beneficial, the virus can produce a useful evolutionary change. In that way, viruses are tools to create new genetic products. In today’s world of genetic engineering, the process is called transduction. We have pointed out before that many times good things come from evolutionary change. God designed living things with the ability to change and adapt. Scientists use viruses as tools to affect desired genetic changes in agricultural products to produce high protein corn, for example. Some viruses attack bacteria, and they are called bacteriophages. As bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, scientists are interested in using bacteriophages as a defense against harmful bacteria.
If they are not living things, then what are viruses? They are sometimes called “organisms on the edge of life.” They are not fully living on their own, but they possess some characteristics of living things. Viruses are very fragile because the only thing protecting them is a thin layer of fat, known as lipids. If the fat is dissolved, the protein molecule disperses and breaks down on its own. That is why any soap or detergent will destroy a virus, and why washing your hands with soap and warm water is essential. Heat melts fat, so water above 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees F) for washing clothes, dishes, or hands will destroy viruses. Any solution which is more than 60% alcohol will dissolve fat and destroy the virus, as will bleach in a 1 to 5 ratio to water. Antibiotics or bactericides do not affect a virus because they only work on living tissue. Antibiotics cannot kill what is not alive.
The problem with viruses is that when they are transferred from animals into humans, or even different animals, they can be destructive. Scientists believe that the current coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) is active in bats where it causes no problems. When the virus jumped into humans, the result was destructive.
Then, what is their purpose? Viruses can be useful tools in their proper place. They are part of the way life continues to exist on a changing Earth. Mismanagement of animals and food can cause a virus to become an enemy of humans. We have a repeat of the Frankenstein phenomenon when a potentially useful concept turns into a monster because of misuse.
Why did God create the coronavirus that causes COVID-19? The short answer is that He didn’t.
That question of disease applies to every human ailment caused by a virus, be it malaria, a common cold, or one of the SARS viruses. A virus is a microorganism that is smaller than a bacterium, and that cannot grow or reproduce apart from a living cell. A virus invades living cells and uses their chemical machinery to survive and replicate. Viruses are not all harmful. They exist in the body to help cells change and adjust to allow reproduction, digestion, and respiration. The problem is that viruses, like everything else, can be mutated by external forces – radiation, pollution, etc.
Built into our bodies is an immune system designed to help reject destructive viruses. This system uses antibodies that attack the proteins in the virus and stop it from reproducing. The problem comes when a virus the body doesn’t recognize as an intruder can multiply and crowd out the normal function of cells. What causes the body not to detect and eliminate a virus? The immune system may not recognize a virus that is different because it has mutated. That usually happens when the virus was in an animal where it caused no problems because the animal’s immune system recognized and controlled it. The problem occurs when the animal passes the virus to a human. In the case of the Marburg virus and the Ebola virus, the source appears to have been bats. In the case of HIV, the virus was from chimpanzees.
The use of chemicals to fight insects has been a source of many changes in the insect population. Bats eat insects, and the chemicals cause changes in the viruses in the bats. In the current coronavirus outbreak, human interactions with bats for food apparently brought the virus into the human population. The results have been disastrous.
So why did God create the coronavirus that causes COVID-19? My preacher friends will simply say that Satan created the virus. Without getting into the theological difficulties with that explanation, how would Satan have done it? The point to remember is that God did not do it.
In theory, at least, the cure for virus problems is simple. Find a way to help the body produce antibodies that can recognize and attack the invading virus. We can do this, but the process is complex and will take time. We can do it because we have some understanding of God’s design of the human body and the immune system. Meanwhile, we need to avoid pathways for the virus to get from person to person. Washing our hands, social distancing, being careful about what we eat, and how we prepare our food are the best defense strategies for now.
In my lifetime, I have seen several disease epidemics. I find it interesting how differently people are responding to this than they did when I was a child, and polio was running wild. Polio was a much more serious issue than COVID-19 ever thought of being. If you got polio in 1952, you were either going to die, be paralyzed, or be in an iron lung for the rest of your life. For those who are younger, an iron lung was a huge tin can that breathed for you, because polio could stop you from breathing on your own. If you were put in an iron lung to preserve your life, the chances are that you would be in that large tin can until you did die. It was awful, but we did not have the pandemic fear.
Even though polio was much worse than the current virus, my classmates were not absorbed with fear and extreme measures to avoid getting polio. We were told that flies carried polio. I remember my mother stringing flypaper all over the place, and going bonkers if she saw a fly in our garage. I was not allowed to go to outdoor events for fear of polio. Still, there was no panic from the media and no cancellations of anything. That is a huge contrast with what has happened in 2020 as we face this virus. That is even though most people who get the virus do not die or have any long-lasting effects. What is the difference?
In my childhood years, being an atheist was unique. I was the only openly atheistic person in my high school class. Our family went to Brown County State Park every Sunday to swim in the park swimming pool. We had the pool to ourselves because everyone else was in church. I had friends who did contract polio. Outside of a sign which said “quarantine” being placed on their front door, not much else happened.
The panic that has gripped our culture today is amazing. According to the CDC ordinary, run of the mill flu killed 61,000 Americans last year and over 12,000 this year so far. But the pandemic fear of COVID-19 far exceeds the fear that has been with us before.
I would suggest to you that as our culture has drifted away from God, the fear of the unknown has grown exponentially. At least part of the pandemic fear is our lack of faith as a society about life and death and who or what is in control.
One fundamental message of Jesus Christ is that Christians should not be driven by panic and fear of the unknown. In Mark 4:36-41, we read the wonderful story of Jesus and the disciples being caught in a storm in a small boat. Jesus is asleep, and they wake him up. Christ quiets the storm and says to the disciples, “Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?” (verse 40).
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible calls believers not to be driven by fear. Joshua 1:9 tells us not to be afraid. Psalms 23:4 talks about walking through the darkest valley. Psalms 27:1 says, “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” Deuteronomy 31:6 says, “…the Lord your God will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5-8 tells us that the Lord is our helper, so we should not be afraid. Jesus tells us in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
If you believe that this life is all you will ever have, then you will fear anything that threatens this life.If you believe that there is something better coming, then nothing that happens in this life is of great consequence. However, I have an instinct to survive and knowing that my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17), I will do what I can to avoid premature death. I am washing my hands, avoiding crowds, and following the other guidelines. Still, I can relate to Paul’s discourse in Philippians 1:21-24, where he says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain … I am in a struggle between having a desire to leave and be with Christ, but I know I should abide in the flesh, which is more needful for you…”
Listening to the media, you might conclude that we have a new threat to our survival in the COVID-19 virus, but that is not the case. Viral diseases have been around from the earliest days of human existence. Recorded history tells us that in 430 BC, a virus took root in Athens and killed two-thirds of the city’s population. Seventy-five million people died from the Black Death in the 14th century. One hundred million people died from the Spanish flu of 1918, and 500 million people were infected. In modern times entire native populations have been wiped out by virus infections. We have all heard of HIV, MERS, SARS, Ebola, H5N1, Nipah, and Zika virus epidemics and their massive numbers of victims.
Scientists studying each of these diseases have determined that they came to humans from animals. HIV originated in chimpanzees. MERS came from camels. SARS originated from bats and civet cats. We can trace COVID-19 to bats and soldierfish. The massive concern about the current coronavirus is that there are far more humans to contract and spread the virus than at any time in the past. Also, we are more concentrated in cities, are more mobile, and have close interaction regularly with animals. In the past 50 years, more than 300 pathogens have emerged. With the use of more animals as pets and as food, there is an increase in the diseases they bring to humans.
From a historical standpoint, the biblical injunctions about hygiene and animal husbandry avoided much of the viral disease problem. The identification of clean and unclean animals reduced human interaction with animals that carry disease. The elaborate rituals of washing and handling animals used as food not only had an aesthetic appeal but reduced the opportunities for disease transmission. The acts of quarantine for anyone showing symptoms eliminated the spreading of disease from one person to another. Pandemics in an isolated farming population was not likely.
As the human population increased, and cities became population centers, the incidence rate of viral diseases increased. Advancing science and technology gave brought the ability to control some diseases. Selfishness, greed, carelessness, and poor hygiene provide easy ways for viruses to spread. Instead of following God’s rules for cleanliness and the preparation of food, humans have employed destructive methods. This is especially true in cultures that have no connection to God’s instructions. It is no accident that the coronavirus for COVID-19 originated in China and in a food market there where food handling and animal managing is limited. It is also no accident that many of the viruses that have decimated human populations were spread because of sexual practices that ignore God’s instructions for sexual relationships.