Some notes on the science of swine flu A/H1N1

Pandemic H1N1 Swine Flu - notes for Christians

Christians can make fools of themselves in the days of crises, and whilst it is permissible to be a fool for Christ[1], it is not right to make Christianity foolish. A quick glance at the web shows some very foolish statements being made by both Christian and none-Christian concerning swine flu or A/H1N1 (also called Pandemic H1N1 influenza by the World Health Organisation – in the end it will be called 2009 flu pandemic). We are not in the Last Days and this is not a judgment of man but merely the continuation of the manifestation of the fall.

The H1N1 virus is unlikely (and as the season moves on, proven to be so) to be any more than a variant of the usual season influenza viruses that circle the globe every year and kills tens of thousands of people. This outbreak may be peculiar because it has arisen at the end of the flue season in the northern hemisphere, but is not totally out of the ordinary. The issue with Christians is how this variant arrived. Evolution is anathema to Christians because it is a set of models that explains the existence and purpose (or lack thereof), of man in particular, and all things in general, in the absence of God.

However, the term cannot be disbanded totally, and as with any written communication, the context must be established before interpretation can be made. Any animal farmer knows that he can improve the stock of his flock or herd by introducing genetic variations that are advantageous. Indeed the genetic pool of a flock or herd can be shifted so much that a quick examination of the current stock shows it is nothing like that of the origin. Indeed, whole chunks of genetic material can be lost or introduced by careful breading. This has happened with humans. Any caucasian is a testimony to the loss of genetic material – in particular that required to produce melanin in our skins – the chemical that darkens the skin in coloured people. Non-caucasians have functional genes that allow for the production of melanin rendering the skin much more robust in UV light, white non-coloured people have lost the ability. Viruses also have shifts in their genetic makeup – and God is a far better breeder of better herds or flocks than man will ever be, and His archetype is the virus. These beautiful creations can rapidly change in order to maximise their ability to survive. Although a form of evolution, the process is never going to allow the virus to turn into a goat, or even a bacterium cell – evolution cannot move one species to another, but it can move or change the expression of certain genes within a population. This means that some communities, such as viruses, can change the expression of certain genes so that as a whole, the expression of certain genes are lost, switched off or enhanced. This means that communities of viruses, as they replicate, change their genetic make-up sufficiently that in time the change is large enough for humans to notice. This has happened with the H1N1 virus.

The virus is perhaps that most beautiful and certainly most simple life-form on the earth[2]. It is essentially a package of information – a file on a compact disc if you like – that in its self can do nothing. This microscopic bundle called a virus contains all the information needed to replicate itself, but this cannot be done by itself – no information is self replicating (in the same way a computer file is just that, a file). With a complex piece of machinery, such as found in the cells in your lungs, the information from the virus can be read – played like program on a CD, which manipulates the cell’s apparatus to manufacture the complex proteins needed to reconstruct a replica of itself, in the same way a program can make a computer perform very complex tasks – indeed build another computer. The package, like a file on the CD, is merely information on how to make the package, including how to label it so that when it enters a warm blooded animal such as pig or human it knows what type of cell to ‘stick to’ and high-jack.

The building blocks of different influenza viruses are all essentially the same – with 'sameness" being similar to the sameness the term 'roof" connotates. The roof has a particular function, but there are many ways to build a roof. The viruses also need specific components, but there many ways each can be constructed. Hence we name the swine flu virus H1N1 where the letters stand for two particular components and the number the variants of them. This is equivalent to roof, type 1 and something else type 1. An example of a virus of the same family is H5N1 which infect humans and birds. Here the H component is variant 5 but the N component is variant 1. Now we also need to add what subtype it falls into – equivalent to what building type the roof is for – and in the case in question the H1N1 is a subtype of influenza A virus[3] (This is why many of us scientists have call this virus, right from the beginning, A/H1N1 – the fact that it may infect swine and humans is interesting, but not really useful for naming it[4]). Now to be strictly truthful, the numbers only very broadly define the component – in the same way as 'tiled" would define a roof type, but not very well. Now we know there are many different types of tiles, hence we need a much more elaborate method to name it – thus scientists also have a much more elaborate way to name viruses – indeed right down to the actual information in the gene – like reading the actual computer code in a computer program. The interesting thing is the code that makes up the genes can be slightly or somewhat different depending upon where the viruses have been living and replicating. Hence, the current H1N1 virus is called swine flu because viruses from swine in America, Asia and Europe have very similar genetic codes as the current H1N1. That is, the genetic code for some components of the A/H1N1 match exactly those found in swine from various countries.

How do we get variants?

Essentially the genetic material of the viruses ‘evolves’ with time. There are at least three ways this occurs. (1) Certain viruses find the host unsuitable, and die out, leaving a community of viruses that are genetically predisposed to live in a particular host (there are also variants on this theme). This can occur, because like any population or community, no two individuals are exactly alike – or at least a fair number will be somewhat different from the 'norm". Hence some will find survival easier than others. We see this type of shift in genetic expression deliberately introduced by farmers who seek to improve their crop – they cull the unproductive and produce from the best. Understanding this is important – the current A/H1N1 grew best, apparently in swine, but in time, if allowed to passage through enough humans may enable a population to develop through method (2) and (3) outlined below, so they can inhabit humans better than currently seen. (2) The 8 pieces of genetic code (genome) that is produced on replication of the virus allows for reassortment of the genes, if more than one variety of influenza virus has infected the same cell. This clearly allows the mixing of genes, which may be somewhat different, altering their expression. That is, the protein they code for will be slightly different – which may enhance their survivability or virulence. (3) Since the virus is very much simpler from say a mammalian cell, it has no error checking mechanism, allowing mutations to occur when the actual genetic code is reproduced. This occurs about once in every replication, the importance of which still needs much more work.

Hence, with the passage of time the H1N1 virus has come back in a form that infects pigs and humans, is fairly virulent, and appears to kill, as does all influenza A forms. How transmissible or virulent it is only time will tell. However, as with any other facet of life, we need always be ready to face our maker – are you saved?

[1] We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! 1 Corinthians 4:10 (NKJV)

[2] Although some dispute that a virus is a life-form saying it is merely a package of information that high-jacks certain apparatus that can utilise that information in order to reproduce the virus. But thinking rationally, a human is no different. A person, that is, the bit that is you – your soul – is merely software. It is packaged in hardware – your body – that utilises the software to reproduce, work and make decisions, such as forming a relationship with God. On death the software – or your soul – then is removed from the hardware. It is the hardware that dies – the software still exists – your soul does not cease to exist on death. Unlike a PC’s software file, the information that forms you – that is you as you – is very intelligent – and should both error detect and auto-correct (this is a very interesting topic, which cannot be gone into here).

[3] This means the information is coded with 'negative sense" RNA, and their hosts are human, swine, birds and horses.

[4] This virus is a ssRNA negative-strand viruses, family; Orthomyxoviridae, influenzavirus A with the code for the 5th segment NA nucleocapsid protein (NP) gene looking like this for the first few bases: gtgacatcga agccatggcg tctcaaggca ccaaacgatc atatgaacaa atggagactg etc etc.
<> Accessed 17 August 2014

David L Simon
3 May 2009
Edited 19 July 2009