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Is COVID-19 An Intelligent Virus That Can Spy?

Intelligence Gathering by Micro-organisms

Is COVID-19 an intelligent virus?

In 1990s scientists at Princeton University discovered that some bacteria could communicate with each other. Using such communication, one bacterium can inform its community about the challenges it is facing in the host. This information is then used by the whole group to devise strategies for invading the host. This allows the entire army of bacteria to grow better and smarter and evolve into better invaders.

Cholera intelligent

Let’s take example of Vibrio Cholerae- the bacteria that causes cholera. When one bacterium invades a host, it tries to maintain molecular silence by ensuring minimal impact on the host cells. This is because if the host immune system gets triggered, it will easily kill the bacterium. So, the invading bacterium waits for the bacterial numbers to grow as it keeps multiplying. And while doing so, these growing number of bacteria keep communicating with each other. Once all decide that they are in enough numbers, only then they start a coordinated attack against the host.

It seems this power of communicating with each other might be present in viruses as well.

Do Viruses Eavesdrop and grow smarter?

This astounding discovery was made while scientists were studying bacteriophages. Any virus needs a host to grow and multiply. Without a host a virus is doomed. This host can be any living organism that can grow and multiply on its own by reading the instructions present in its genetic material. Even bacteria can be used as hosts by some viruses. Such viruses are known as bacteriophages.[1]

Bacteriophage

A bacteriophage is a virus that infects bacteria. Once a bacteriophage infects a bacterium, it has to choose between two actions- either wait and watch or multiply itself. Wait and watch can be dangerous. If the host dies before the virus has multiplied, it’s a death sentence for virus itself. If the bacteriophage chooses to immediately multiply, it will end up killing its host bacteria. In this second scenario, there has to be bacteria present nearby which these new viruses can infect after bursting open the bacterial host. Else, the second decision is also similar to death sentence for the virus and its daughters.  [2][3][4]

To make the right decision, the virus needs information. This it does by eavesdropping and sensing signals from the host. The virus keeps “listening”, and waits for its hosts to announce that they’re plentiful- so that when the virus decides to multiply (which will end up killing the bacterial host), its daughters viruses will assuredly find many more bacterial cells around them to invade. [2][3][4]

The eavesdropping and information gathering ability of viruses was first discovered in a marine bacteriophage names VP882. This virus infects a specific strain of vibrio bacteria found in seas. And this bacterial strain belongs to the same family of bacteria that causes Cholera.[5]

This leads to us to an interesting fact of life- you get what you do! What vibrio bacteria does to us; the phage virus does the same to the vibrio bacteria!

an intelligent virus

How Do the Ancient Communication Systems Work?

We still have quite preliminary information on how this ancient communication system works. One component that has been discovered in vibrio bacteria is the use of signaling molecule called DPO. When one vibrio bacterium invades a host it releases DPO. Through a signal sensing receptor named VqmA, it then measures the quantity of DPO around it. Since each bacterium would release a fixed quantity of DPO, the total amount of DPO would keep increasing as the number of bacteria keeps increasing. And each bacterium will note this increase via VqmA. Once DPO quantity reaches critical amount, the entire army of bacteria change their strategy from “wait & watch” to “attack and spread”.[6]

Intelligent virus decision making

Interesting part is that even the virus VP882 that infects vibrio bacteria can sense DPO released by the bacteria and collect information. It’s like the virus is virtually eavesdropping on the communication that is happening within the vibrio army. Things get more interesting here- it has been postulated that the virus VP882 can mess with this communication and confuse the vibrio. For the virus it’s important that vibrios start multiplying and spreading- because more they spread, more will be spread of the viruses and their daughters. Hence, by messing up with communication, VP882 can make the vibrios move from “wait & watch” to “attack and spread” strategy much earlier.[5]

We need to remember that we know very little about these microbe level communication systems. DPO- VqmA system just one of the many mechanisms and most probably represents a tiny tip of the metaphorical iceberg. DPO- VqmA is a chemical messaging system- also known as quorum sensing. However, bacteria can communicate using electrical messages as well. Using electrically charged ions such a potassium, one bacterium can generate potential difference which can be picked up by another bacterium. This electrical way of communication is very similar to how our brain sends signals by firing nerves. Bacteria existed since millions of years before human beings started walking on this earth. Most probably, as we evolved, we ourselves learnt and adapted from these bacterial ancestors how one cell can communicate with each other- that eventually led to development of brain and nerves.

Communication is not limited within one camp for these microscopic armies. Different bacterial species can share intelligence to benefit each other. Using electrical signals bacteria can not only communicate within their own armies but also communicate with other armies of bacteria as well. Bacillus subtilis, a type of bacteria, has been found to communicate with Pseudomonas aeruginosa, post which pseudomonas bacterial cells started moving towards the signal source.  Similarly, even one species of virus can communicate outside their species as well. [7][8]

Virus communication

Putting one spymaster against another- Tackling Bacterial Resistance

By communicating within themselves, bacteria keep getting smarter. One bacterium learns how to beat an antibiotic and soon the message spreads to other bacteria as well. Soon the antibiotic becomes useless. Antibiotic resistance is a concerning issue all across the world. Each time a new antibiotic that is discovered after decades of research is introduced; it is rendered useless within months.

Rather than using antibiotics, we can use bacteriophages.[9] Bacteriophages are as smart as bacteria. Bacteria learn from us and get better at attacking us. Bacteriophages can learn from the same bacteria and get better in killing those bacteria. Using genetic engineering bacteriophage viruses can be created that can target specific bacteria.

Bacteriophage antibiotic resistance

The other route is to disable the message sensing and/or message generating mechanisms of disease-causing bacteria. This will destroy bacterial ability to allow making smart group decision- it won’t allow resistance causing mutations to spread widely.

That’s the positive part of the story. But there is a scary part.

For outsmarting bacteria causing diseases in humans, we may use viruses like bacteriophages. But there is no similar alternative that be used to outmaneuver smart viruses that attack and kill humans?

Is COVID-19 a smart virus?

COVID-19 pandemic has been relentless. Millions have been infected and killed. It has been an outright massacre.  We just saw that viruses can collect information, communicate with each other and make smart decisions. This might be the reason why we are seeing so many variants smart enough to break through the protection provided by vaccines or past infection. The initial variants could attack ones with weaker immune system, such as those with comorbid conditions or those who are old. Then the newer variants arose which can easily attack young healthy-looking individuals. Scientists across the world worked hard and fast to come up with vaccines. Vaccines did provide protection to many. But then again virus got smarter. It came up with new variants that can easily smash the defenses provided by vaccines.

COVID-19 an intelligent virus gathering information

It is also possible that other harmless looking viruses living within us might be collecting information and passing to COVID-19. This might cause the whole strategy of lockdown to fail. A simple virus residing in our intestines can pass through the feces and reach the outside world and eventually communicate with COVID-19 somewhere hidden in animals like bats.

Thus, even though we might be locked down in our homes the COVID-19 virus might be smartly sharpening its weapons with constant flow of information.

What it means is, it is possible that whatever we do to stop COVID-19 eventually will fail. Whenever we introduce a new strategy, few of the viruses will gather data, learn, adapt, succeed and teach its entire community about its adaptation to succeed. Soon, an army of new variants will emerge that will make our new strategy to defend fail miserably.

Does this mean “THE END” for us?

It does look extremely concerning that COVID-19 might be an intelligent virus. But, as you can see from the above narrative, this intelligence shown by bacteria and viruses is not new. It existed even before human entered the race of evolution.

Human race has been attacked innumerable times by millions of such intelligent viruses and bacteria. We did not go extinct. We survived. And that’s because of two important reasons. If viruses are smart, so are our internal defenses.  And remember- we have come a long way in terms of evolution. Our immune systems have evolved to such level of precision and superior intelligent adaptations that it will eventually overpower the ancient intelligent mechanisms used by the viruses and bacteria around us.

COVID-19 we will survive

The other important reason that has helped us survive is the very fact that we are the most intelligent amongst all species. The very fact that we know how viruses gather information and communicate with each other itself is the proof of our massively superior intelligence. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should underestimate the challenge in front of us posed by COVID-19. It is one of the most formidable challenges we have faced in our lifetimes.  But I think we will eventually figure out how to beat this pandemic in its own game.

The Endgame

Remember, virus gains nothing by killing us. To survive and multiply, it needs host. So long as the host survives, survival of virus is guaranteed. But even the host must allow the virus to live. If host defenses are attacking and killing the virus, its no-good host then. Hence, currently, the COVID-19 virus tries to multiply as fast as possible and search for the new host, before the current host can destroy the virus and its progenies. And COVID-19 is really good at this multiplication part. That’s how it could infect millions across the world in such a short time. Inside the patient, this COVID-19 virus multiplies so rapidly that it overwhelms the immune system. In few the immune system gets so much worked up that it gets burnt out and explodes leading to what we call as cytokine storm that eventually kills the patient.

The endgame is actually quite predictable. COVID-19 will keep gathering information on our new defenses and strategies to beat this virus. Based on this information COVID-19 will keep evolving new smarter variants that will overpower our strategies. But slowly our collective defense system as human race will grow better in outsmarting this virus.

Complimenting this smart adaptation by our defense system, will be the strategies we will develop using our brains. The super swift development of vaccines using innovative RNA/DNA based platforms is a small example. We will soon come up with effective anti-virals. It is true that COVID-19 will evolve to make these vaccines and anti-virals ineffective. But we will soon come up with better innovative strategies that can’t be overpowered by this virus.

Ofcourse this will take a long time. How long will this “long” time be- can’t be predicted.  And in this fight, many more millions of fellow humans will die.

Finally, we will reach a stage where the virus and humans will learn to co-exist with each other. On infecting a host, the final stable variant will stop multiplying rapidly. It will create much fewer “danger” signals. In turn, human defenses will allow this stable variant to survive for a much longer time. This will make the infected humans serve as carriers of the virus for a much longer duration. Most of these carriers will be asymptomatic or will exhibit minimal symptoms. This will allow virus to spread and multiply much wider without really harming the host.

COVID-19 and humans will coexist

There is also a possibility that human biology will start synergizing with the eventual COVID-19 viral strain to develop a mechanism that improves survival for both species. We can’t be sure of that- but it is a possibility. It has happened multiple times earlier. I will discuss this in detail in a separate blog.

What can go wrong?

Past is the lens we use to predict future. But prediction is a prediction and never a guarantee. Our attempts to curb COVID-19 might itself be unknowingly causing more harm. Our current methods to combat this pandemic might be negating the intelligent adaptations of our highly evolved immune systems.

What if the vaccines we use themselves are driving formation of new variants that are confusing our immune system and slowing down its adaptation process? Vaccines are vaccines and not exactly the natural way of training our immune system. The variants of COVID-19 that are evolving in response to vaccines might be very different from what would have evolved through post- infection immunity. What if our vaccination drives are actually disrupting the natural herd immunity?

Virus and immune system of human beings as species need enough interactions so that they co- evolve to the final stage where they co-exist with each other. What if our interventions such as lockdowns are destroying this natural cycle of evolution?

COVID-19 human mistakes

We don’t have answers to these questions as of now. Maybe we are in the right direction. Maybe one day our very search for better vaccines will lead to a universal anti-COVID vaccine that can’t be overpowered by any variant. Maybe the lockdowns don’t allow COVID-19 viruses to communicate with each other effectively and make them less smart.

Finally, everything will fall apart if COVID-19 is the smartest of the virus out there and is using an intelligent system that we are not aware of.

However, as of now, all fingers point towards the predictable direction where eventually COVID-19 won’t be as harmful as it is and human defenses will allow it to live, thus making it possible for both humans and the virus to co-exist.

Confusing the spymaster: Beating COVID-19 in its own game

Decoy and disinformation are routinely used in any warfare for deceiving the enemy. The aim is to confuse the enemy and slowly push them into making wrong decisions.

The initial half of World War II was dominated by the Germans, and they seemed invincible. German espionage and information collection were quite advanced. However, soon the secret services of allied forces started effectively combating enemy espionage. They successfully intercepted German communications and fed misinformation back to Germany. The false information fed to the Germans concerning military strategy of the allies made the German generals take inaccurate decisions. Dummy airfields and even fake towns were created in England to divert German bombers from the real targets. Using dummy military equipment and feeding wrong information to German spies, the allied troops completely fooled the Germans in predicting the location of D-Day attack. In June 1944 the Allied Forces successfully landed in Normandy and literally faced no German resistance. D-Day attack turned out to be a turning point that led to downfall of Germans in World War II. [10]

Fighting COVID-19

We need to truly understand how COVID-19 is gathering information and how its armies are communicating with each other. Then, we can start targeting this viral communication network. We can either disrupt it. Or we can confuse it. The better strategy will be to feed it with information that will drive it towards evolving into variants that multiply less furiously within the host. This will also then mean that human immune system will not react frantically against COVID-19 infection. This should then accelerate achievement of the evolutionary endpoint where COVID-19 and humans will start coexisting with each other.  We should not aim to focus on destroying the virus completely. With such rapidly spreading and ever evolving virus, it’s not really possible to eliminate the virus completely from the ecosystem and such strategies would be counterproductive- it will drive virus into more virulence leading to heavier casualties on our side.

WIN- WIN always wins!

References

[1]        M. Breitbart, “Marine viruses: Truth or dare,” Annual Review of Marine Science, vol. 4.  Annual Reviews , pp. 425–448, Dec. 12, 2012, doi: 10.1146/annurev-marine-120709-142805.

[2]        Z. Erez et al., “Communication between viruses guides lysis-lysogeny decisions,” Nature, vol. 541, no. 7638, pp. 488–493, Jan. 2017, doi: 10.1038/nature21049.

[3]        C. Dou et al., “Structural and functional insights into the regulation of the lysis–lysogeny decision in viral communities,” Nat. Microbiol., vol. 3, no. 11, pp. 1285–1294, Nov. 2018, doi: 10.1038/s41564-018-0259-7.

[4]        A. Du Toit, “Viral infection: The language of phages,” Nature Reviews Microbiology, vol. 15, no. 3. Nature Publishing Group, pp. 134–135, Feb. 13, 2017, doi: 10.1038/nrmicro.2017.8.

[5]        J. E. Silpe and B. L. Bassler, “A Host-Produced Quorum-Sensing Autoinducer Controls a Phage Lysis-Lysogeny Decision,” Cell, vol. 176, no. 1–2, pp. 268-280.e13, Jan. 2019, doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2018.10.059.

[6]        X. Huang et al., “Mechanism underlying autoinducer recognition in the Vibrio cholerae DPO-VqmA quorum-sensing pathway,” J. Biol. Chem., vol. 295, no. 10, pp. 2916–2931, Mar. 2020, doi: 10.1074/jbc.RA119.012104.

[7]        S. T. Abedon, “Commentary: Communication between viruses guides lysis-lysogeny decisions,” Frontiers in Microbiology, vol. 8, no. MAY. Frontiers Media S.A., pp. 488–493, May 31, 2017, doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2017.00983.

[8]        J. Humphries et al., “Species-Independent Attraction to Biofilms through Electrical Signaling,” Cell, vol. 168, no. 1–2, pp. 200-209.e12, Jan. 2017, doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2016.12.014.

[9]        Z. Golkar, O. Bagasra, and D. Gene Pace, “Bacteriophage therapy: A potential solution for the antibiotic resistance crisis,” Journal of Infection in Developing Countries, vol. 8, no. 2. J Infect Dev Ctries, pp. 129–136, Feb. 2014, doi: 10.3855/jidc.3573.

[10]      “Operation Fortitude – Wikipedia.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Fortitude (accessed Jun. 16, 2021).

Dr Subir Roy

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