The King of Viruses

Dr. Mussaad M. Al-Razouki
10 min readFeb 13, 2020

A virus is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals to plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea. Viruses are not alive as they only display one of the seven characteristics of living organisms — reproduction. The name “coronavirus” is derived from the Latin corona, meaning crown or halo, which refers to the characteristic appearance of the virus particles (virions) which have a fringe reminiscent of a king’s crown. Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as the notorious Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans and 2019-nCoV was the initial label that the World Health Organization (WHO), used for the outbreak that was first reported from Wuhan, China, on the 31st of December 2019, it is now known officially as COVID-19; despite the vast majority of its effects occurring in early 2020.

Like many other viruses, coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are easily transmitted between animals and people. Interestingly enough only a mere seven of the dozens of documented coronaviruses have infected humans. Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans (See: The Scary Reason Saudi’s Are Kissing Camels). To keep things spooky, there are several known coronaviruses currently circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.

Animated map of confirmed 2019-nCoV cases spreading from 12 January 2020 to 10 February 2020

Earlier this week, health officials announced that the 2019-nCoV death toll has surpassed the 1,000 mark, surpassing the SARS -CoV epidemic of 2002/3 with a further 40,000 to 55,000+ documented cases (depending on diagnostic standards) around the world shifting 2019 from a local epidemic, an outbreak of disease that attacks many peoples at about the same time and may spread through one or several communities, to a global pandemic, when an epidemic spreads throughout the world.

But the true king of viruses is our natural-born human hysteria, terrified by the traditional media and skyrocketed by social media. Instead of zoonotic, is it screenotic, meaning that it can easily transmit between television/smartphone screens and people, many of whom are far from smart and usually display only one of the seven characteristics of living organisms — reproduction. It is a digital problem of pandemic proportions.

In actual fact, death due to coronavirus does not even make it into the top causes of death worldwide. Of the 56.9 million deaths worldwide per year (the latest WHO data is from 2016 and published in 2018), more than half (54%) are due to the top 10 causes (see below). Ischaemic heart disease and stroke are the world’s biggest killers, accounting for a combined 15.2 million deaths in 2016. These diseases have remained the leading causes of death globally in the last 15 years.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) claimed three million lives in 2016, while lung cancer (along with trachea and bronchus cancers) caused 1.7 million deaths. Diabetes killed 1.6 million people in 2016, up from less than 1 million in 2000. Deaths due to dementias more than doubled between 2000 and 2016, making it the 5th leading cause of global deaths in 2016 compared to 14th in 2000.

Lower respiratory infections remained the most deadly communicable or infectious disease, causing three million deaths worldwide in 2016. The death rate from diarrhoeal diseases decreased by almost 1 million between 2000 and 2016, but still caused 1.4 million deaths in 2016. Similarly, the number of tuberculosis deaths decreased during the same period, but is still among the top 10 causes with a death toll of 1.3 million. HIV/AIDS is no longer among the world’s top 10 causes of death, having killed 1.0 million people in 2016 compared with 1.5 million in 2000.

On the zootrophic side, more people will probably die from tapeworms than coronavirus in 2020, with mosquitoes by far claiming the lion share of deaths due to malaria, with some estimates as high as 1 million human deaths per year. So where are all the newspaper headlines regarding these millions of malaria deaths?

Notice that humans are the second deadliest animals. Sadly, more humans die from suicide than they do from any of the above animals. The WHO estimates that close to 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Note that this does not include the modern macabre phenomenon of “death by selfies.” A study published in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care found that some 259 people sadly died while taking selfies between October 2011 and November 2017.

The WHO further estimated that close to 1.53 million people will commit suicide in 2020. This boost in suicides is in large part due to the negative public health influence of our new king of viruses; social media. A fundamental question is whether an association exists between rates of Internet use, including social media, and population suicide rates. Although limited, several preliminary studies have begun to address this question. For example, researchers conducted a cross-national study that examined the association between general population suicide rates and the prevalence of Internet users, using data from the World Health Organization’s and the
United Nations Development Program’s Web sites. The data showed that the prevalence of Internet users was positively correlated with general population suicide rates. Multiple regression analysis indicated that the prevalence of Internet use was independently associated with general population suicide rates in men (P = .001) and approached statistical significance for women (P = .074).

Cyberbullying and cyber harassment, for example, are serious and prevalent chronic problems that are increasing the rate of teenage and even child suicide. Sadly, we see a very limited media wave warning against the dangers of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying typically refers to when a child or adolescent is intentionally and repeatedly targeted by another child or teen in

the form of threats or harassments or humiliated or embarrassed by means of smartphones or Internet technologies such as e-mail, texting, social networking sites, or instant messaging. Cyber harassment and cyberstalking typically refer to these same actions when they involve adults. A review of data collected between 2004 and 2010 via survey studies indicated that lifetime cyberbullying victimization rates ranged from 20.8% to
40.6% and offending rates ranged from 11.5% to 20.1%.

Cyberbullying, when directly or indirectly linked to suicide, has been referred to as cyberbullicide. Recent research points to results from a survey given to approximately 2000 middle school children that indicated that victims of cyberbullying were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide than those who were not. These results also indicated that cyberbullying offenders were 1.5 times as likely to report having attempted suicide than children who were not offenders or victims of cyberbullying. Although cyberbullying cannot be identified as a sole predictor of suicide in adolescents and young adults, it can increase risk of suicide by amplifying feelings of isolation, instability, and hopelessness for those with preexisting emotional, psychological, or environmental.

In sociology and psychology, mass hysteria (also known as mass psychogenic illness, collective hysteria, group hysteria, or collective obsessional behavior) is a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear.

In medicine, the term is used to describe the spontaneous manifestation (production of chemicals in the body) of the same or similar hysterical physical symptoms by more than one person. A common type of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believes they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment, sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria.

Mass hysteria is indeed nothing new and perhaps even forms an important clinical-cultural cornerstone of what it means to be part of collective human society. An 1844 book citing an unnamed medical textbook, recorded the strange case of a nun in a French convent during an unspecified time in the Middle Ages who inexplicably began to meow like a cat, shortly leading to the other nuns in the convent also meowing. Eventually, all the nuns would meow together for a certain period every day, leaving the surrounding community astonished. This did not stop until the local police threatened to whip the nuns.

A similar story by an earlier author in 1784, mentioned a nun in a German convent, again during the 1400s, who began to bite her companions, and the behavior spread through other convents in Germany, into Holland and even as far as Italy.

Now multiply that meowing, zombie biting, nun by about three billion, which is roughly the number of humans on social media, and you the king of viruses is now ready to hold (international) court.

Anatomy of the King of Vira

In the contemporary media landscape, examples of viral events that gather a lot of attention are plentiful, and social media plays an important role both in creating and supporting these events. Examples indicate that such events also bear real-life consequences. In 2017, passengers of a United Airlines flight posted videos of a man being forcibly dragged out of a fully booked airplane, which caused an international stir mainly taking place on social media. Soon after, United Airlines' stock dropped 1.4 billion dollars. Another example from 2017 folds around a #penelopegate, which refers to a scandal regarding the former lead French presidential candidate François Fillon who allegedly had employed his wife Penelope to a fictitious job that paid one million euros in public wages. Extensive social media coverage was followed by the news revelation and support for Fillon plummeted in the wake of accusations. The king of viruses has the power to decimate business and politics. Economists estimate that this new coronavirus outbreak could cost the world economy $280B in Q1 and send global GDP in reverse (quarter over quarter) for the first time in over a decade. Thankfully, the longer-term view from analysts isn’t as gloomy. “We assume the virus will be contained soon, and that lost output is made up in subsequent quarters so that world GDP reaches the level it would have done had there been no outbreak by the middle of 2021,” notes Capital Economics. The People’s Bank of China (China’s Central Bank) is busy taking action to prop up the economy, injecting 1.7 T yuan ($173 bn) of liquidity into the market and instructing banks not to call in loans for companies based in the virus-stricken Hubei province.

The Economic Impact of COVID-19

The king of viruses has already reigned its havoc during February with the cancellation if one of the world’s largest conferences, The World Mobile Congress in Barcelona and forcing U.S. stock index futures to pull back from record highs - with the DJIA pointing to an opening loss of 200 points - today ahead of earnings from global bellwethers Alibaba (NYSE:BABA), PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP), Kraft Heinz (NASDAQ:KHC) and Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA). Denting sentiment are the 15,000 new coronavirus infections in China that were calibrated using a new CT scan detection method, rather than confirmation via slower ribonucleic acid tests. That brings the national total to just over 60,000 cases, prompting China to replace its top officials in the central province of Hubei and its capital, Wuhan. While non-China deaths linked to COVID-19 still remain very low, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned the outbreak "could still go in any direction."

On the Black Monday of March 9th, the New York Stock Exchange’s (NYSE) Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) sank by 7.8% or more than 2,000 points — the biggest points-drop in its history and the largest decline in percentage terms since the 2008 financial crisis, triggering fail-safe circuit breakers which halted trading for 15 minutes in an attempt to calm investor hysteria. The S&P 500 also fell 7.6%, while the Nasdaq dropped about 7.3%. The sell-off carried over into Asia Pacific, where Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 ended 7.3% also ended lower on Black Monday, the index’s biggest plunge since October 2008. Japan’s Nikkei 225 (N225) sank 5.1% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng (HSI) lost 4.2%, while China’s Shanghai Composite (SHCOMP) shed 3%. European stocks plummeted in the opening minutes of trade. The FTSE 100 (UKX) has plunged 8.5%, putting the index on track for its worst day since the global financial crisis in October 2008. Germany’s DAX (DAX) is down 7.4% and Italy’s benchmark index fell 7.1%. All contagion considered, the coronavirus crises has wiped out close to $10 trillion of global market value.

As of March 10th, health officials announced that the 2019-nCoV death toll has surpassed the 4,000 mark, surpassing the SARS -CoV epidemic of 2002/3 with , 4,011 deaths across the globe in over 100 countries with a further 110,000+ documented cases (depending on diagnostic standards) around the world shifting 2019 from a local epidemic, an outbreak of disease that attacks many peoples at about the same time and may spread through one or several communities, to a global pandemic, when an epidemic spreads throughout the world.

To end on a brighter note, there have been close to 65,000 cases of documented recovery from the illness, with most patients (up to 80% according to the WHO) recovering without any medical treatment.

there have thankfully already been over 4,000 documented cases of recovery from the latest 2019-nCoV. It is a reminder that while caution and prevention are always best practice, mass hysteria certainly isn’t a prerequisite. The king is dead, long live the king.