Faith and Wisdom in Coronavirus Science

Most readers of this blog will be experiencing times unlike any other in their lives. Those of our neighbours in the Northern England city of York who remember the Second World War confirm that, though trying, challenging and tragic in different ways, this isolation, this hidden enemy, these exponentially increasing numbers of dead and dying really are different. From 1939-1945, the medical workers, nurses, doctors were the support behind the front line. Now they are the front line.

But behind that front line of carers is another vital task-force – that of scientists: virologists, epidemiologists, protein biochemists, biophysicists and many more, whose gifts and experience have already, and are going to be, essential to the minimisation of suffering, and the combat against the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself. Here is a schematic picture of what the virus looks like – the diameter of its spherical form is one tenth of a micron, or one ten-millionth of a meter. If it were the size of a tennis ball, your hand would stretch 100km across. It is a thing of terrible beauty.

corona-genome-transp

Schematic model of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus. On its surface are models of the proteins that ‘lock’ onto human cells. Through the ‘cutaway’ of the virus’ lipid bilayer can be seen representations of the RNA that it injects into host cells, which code for the production of new viruses.

The structure of the ‘spike proteins’ on its surface (these are the key to the virus’ binding and infecting human lung cells) was deduced very quickly, and published at the resolution of single atoms, by a group at the University of Texas at Austin in February this year. In a common representational scheme for proteins, the special folded shape of their polypeptide polymer looks like this:

ncov

Main protease protein with inhibitor N3 (white stick representation) covalently bound to residue cysteine 145 in the protease active site. Display shows secondary structure (helices in magenta, strands in cyan, loops in yellow). Adjacent active site residue histidine 41 is also shown. From Protein Data Bank.

That we know so much about this extraordinary object is itself a contemplative wonder. Of course the speed with which such rich information has been gathered on this new threat depends on decades, and more, of difficult research by thousands of people in many countries. The work goes on right now of course – just this past week I have been involved in helping coordinate a worldwide effort of theoretical biophysicists with wonderful computational tools that might be turned towards helping find drugs faster. People interested in these efforts can find information and links on the new UK Physics of Life Network page.

The history of our knowledge of the coronavirus class goes back to the 1960s, when David Tyrrell CBE at the UK’s Wiltshire Common Cold Research Unit, and coworkers, discovered viruses in common cold patients whose sensitivity to ether indicated that they possessed a lipid membrane (like those of ordinary cells) rather than the protein coats of many other viruses. Later they and others obtained electron microscope images of the spherical virus particles:

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Coronavirus OC16.  from Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 1967;57;933–940. The ‘crowns’ of spike proteins on the virus particles’ surfaces can be seen.

In his later life (he died in 2005) Tyrrell later worked on BSE and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), as well as holding many positions of critical leadership in the UK medical world.  His biographers record a typical, but striking, reaction to his hearing confirmation of 16 proteins whose expression his own work had linked to CFS:

When David received news of the confirmation of these 16 genes by polymerase chain reaction technology, he said that he celebrated by mowing the lawn while singing ‘Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven’!

For it turns out that David Tyrrell was a lifelong and committed Christian. It sometimes surprises people that many scientists are also Christian believers, but that is always due to  misunderstandings of either Christianity, or science, or both, that Faith and Wisdom in Science was (in part) written to correct. For scientists like Tyrrell, or myself, science is a personal vocation, and not only that but a part of the great calling of humankind by the Creator to establish a responsible and wise relationship with the world in which we live. One cannot sustain a fruitful relationship without knowledge of the other partner, or without wisdom in how we use that knowledge. So with people, so with the world we live in.

Of course any religion that presents a God who, like a nanny in a giant nursery, acts to prevent all slips and hurts, keeps their charges from all danger by hemming them into a safe space with no freedom to explore, intervenes in every moment of threat, is immediately refuted by the very existence of pandemics such as the COVID-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

the-stone-is-rolled-awayFortunately the God that Christianity speaks of is nothing like that. What attracts scientists to Christianity, I think, is the way that its view of the world is gritty, practical, realistic in its assessment of the inherent selfishness of human beings, but as gloriously hopeful that they can rise through grace to be selfless, serving and hopeful. The great suffering character of the Old Testament, Job, is the one of whom God said that he was right to complain that his suffering was unfair and unjust. Yet Job was asked nonetheless to pray for the nations, and for the ‘friends’ who had spent so much time accusing him of wrongdoing, even while he was in the middle of grief and pain. Easter time reminds us that this God is also the Creator who did not turn his back from a suffering world, but entered it and served, healed and suffered here. Easter also reveals itself both as the affirmation that it is right to wish for an end to suffering and injustice, and also the source of hope that one day Creation will be renewed. That is the future to which the resurrection points, and about which St. Paul used the metaphor of ‘all creation groaning’ in his exposition of Christian hope to the early church in Rome (Letter to the Romans chapter 8).

It is fascinating that the Book of Job itself, the book that most deeply engages the issues of human indignation against the injustice of undeserved suffering, is also the book that speaks at such intensity of our questioning, curious, insatiable longing to know how the natural world works. The cycles of speeches between Job and his friends represent one of the richest texts of all ancient sources for discussion of the spontaneity, the chaos, the wildness of the world. Its animal examples are all untamed, its natural phenomena all unpredictable – lightning, flood, earthquake – and also disease. Yet the picture presented in the great poem of ‘the Lord’s Answer’ (chapters 38-42) is one in which the freedom of nature to explore its possibilities and potential is both necessary, and also confined by constraint. The flood has its channel, the lightning its path through the air. This is not an answer to the ‘problem of pain’, but it urges us to use the minds we have to explore the ways that order arises out of chaos, to make the world fruitful. For readers of Job, there should be no surprises that biological nature explores the freedom of its manifold forms through evolution – this is just the same leitmotif of whirling winds and waves from which come the order of landmasses and seas, played out at the genetic level, and presents us with the same calling, and challenge, to understand.

It is always the small, unseen yet myriad ways of serving that cause me joy when I see them happening in and from the church. –  like the way that mainstream churches have taken scientific advice on distancing seriously, and rapidly found ways of serving their communities under those constraints. Connecting people, bringing supplies to the housebound, helping people who suddenly find that they want to pray but don’t know how … and supporting the scientists, medical workers and others in their congregations.

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