Priest-Microbiologist on COVID-19: Possible Treatment & Metaphysics

Priest-Microbiologist on COVID-19: Possible Treatment & Metaphysics March 21, 2020

Pills & Bottle
Pills & Bottle (CC0 Pixnio)

I have found a lot of the reporting both on the effects and possible treatment fro COVID-19 can be hyperbolic. I found one expert in microbiology posting reasoned answers on Facebook that I think are worth sharing here. Fr. Nicanor posted two things worth discussing: possible treatment and metaphysics of viruses.

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, is a priest who has a PhD in microbiology from MIT and teaches biology at Providence College. He also has a doctoral degree in theology and teaches that so he knows the form a Thomistic Quaestio.

Possible Treatment for COVID-19

Fr. Nicanor gave some reasoned analysis on Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ, an anti-malaria drug) noting that initial results look promising but keeping reasonable skepticism.

As a molecular biologist, what is so exciting for me about this claim is that the clinical trial in France was pretty good, given the extreme circumstances. Yes, it was a small trial, but if you read the paper, it was rigorous for what it wanted to do, which is to be a pilot study. And it showed that HCQ significantly shortened the time for the patient to clear virus from his or her system.

Also noteworthy, a previous paper from a lab in China — again, it is so important that these are independent investigations — demonstrated that hydroxychloroquine can prevent viral reproduction in a test tube.

And they were able to provide a mechanism of action for this anti-viral activity, and it is a reasonable one. (For molecular biologists, mechanism makes all the difference in the world!) Briefly, it alters the pH of the parts of the cell necessary for viral reproduction.

The Chinese biologists made a prediction in their paper about patient use: “Therefore, with a safe dosage, HCQ concentration in the above tissues is likely to be achieved to inhibit SARS-CoV-2 infection.” This is a prediction that appears to have been borne out in the clinical study in France.

I am hopeful because the clinical study seems robust and it is backed up with molecular evidence for anti-viral function.

Finally, HCQ is very cheap and readily available: With a prescription, I could walk down the street to a Filipino pharmacy to buy a 200mg pill for PHP85 (which is the equivalent of $1.30). I know that they have it because I checked online. And this is in a random pharmacy in Manila! According to the study, taking three of these pills every day for six days would rid you of SARS-CoV2. And the side-effects for short-term use of HCQ are minimal. This for about $30.

In the end, despite what [some media say], I am very optimistic about this development… Yes, there is minimal evidence but that is not unexpected in a pandemic. But the minimal evidence is actually pretty solid, given the practical limits of doing clinical trials in a global crisis.

Yet, when both in vitro [in a petri dish] and in vivo [in a living organism] studies converge, that is an optimistic sign. Especially when you have a mechanism of action that is reasonable and is in line with what we know about viral reproduction.

Finally, yes, it has to be tested by the FDA. But that is the point! But instead of poo-pooing this scientific discovery, I am going to pray that this will bear much fruit!

I asked him about how much this would accelerate getting back closer to normal and he noted:

If HCQ is as effective as the initial studies would suggest, it would help us flatten the curve and dramatically lower the burden on our healthcare system. I have heard that there are clinical trials where physicians are giving HCQ to individuals living with someone with a milder case of COVID-19 in order to limit spread.But this will not be a cure-all. For some, COVID-19 will still do much damage. This is not just an infectious cold or flu. The data from Italy suggests that for a significant number of the human population, it is better understood as infectious pneumonia.

He provides links in the post.

Metaphysics of COVID-19

Fr. Nicanor posted this as a Thomistic Question:

Question: “Does a virus have a substantial form? If so, can you help me understand why God would allow such a reality to exist? What goodness does it have in itself?”

Response: A virus can be compared to a seed. In itself, a seed is alive, but it is not growing. It is not really doing anything. But when you place the seed into soil, it grows into a tree. The tree grows and produces more seeds. The virus is similar. In itself it is alive but it is not growing. It is not really doing anything. But when you place the virus in contact with a cell, it becomes a virosome. The virosome grows within the cell and produces more viruses.

You ask whether or not a virus is a substance. The same can be asked about a seed. I would say that a seed is the earliest stage of development of a tree, which is clearly a substance. In the same way, the virus is the earliest stage of a virosome, which I think is a living organism within a cell. It grows, it uses energy, it reproduces and makes more viruses that can spread.

So yes, seeds and viruses have substantial forms. And because they are alive, these substantial forms are actually souls. Not souls like ours, but souls nonetheless.

God makes each living thing so that it can give glory to Him. A virus gives glory to God in the same way that sharks and cobras give glory to God. They simply reveal the ingenuity and creativity of God who creates all of them. In being sharks, cobras, and viruses, they are already good. Notice that we understand that sharks and cobras are good, even when they kill humans. They kill humans because that is what sharks and cobras do when they encounter humans that threaten their well-being.

The same thing can be said about mosquitoes that spread malaria or Zika or dengue. They are doing what mosquitoes do. And sometimes people are killed because of their activity. And yet, mosquitoes are good too because God made them to give glory to Him.

Most viruses do not infect people. However, some do. They are doing what viruses do. And sometimes people are killed because of their activity too. And yet, they too are good in themselves even though they can cause much suffering and evil.

At this time, we pray for God’s mercy and providential guidance of all the people around the world who are fighting hard to control and stem this viral pandemic. The virus is doing what it does. Now, we must do what we do, which is to use our reason to develop drugs and vaccines against the pandemic.

Follow-up Question: “I would ask this in reply, however. I understand the point more about sharks and even mosquitoes. But when it comes to a virus, it almost seems like its only “goal” or “final cause” is to infect others and ultimately kill. In other words, there seems to be a range of activities and ends of a shark. But it’s as if God created (or allowed to form) viruses *only* for their destructive purpose. Can you help me with this? Am I missing something more about the purpose of a virus? Thank you, again!”

Follow-up Response: The final cause of every living thing, other than human beings, is to thrive and to survive. (We are made ultimately for God.) For animals and some plants, to survive means that others have to die. This is the rhythm of life. Antelopes die so lions may live. Squirrels die so eagles may live. Insects die so Venus fly traps may live. So in the living world, every organism is destructive.

For COVID-19, some of us die so it may live. Notice that not all die. In fact, 98% of COVID-19 patients survive. Therefore, you cannot say that the virus’s end is to kill humans. The virus infects humans in order to live. Tragically, some are too weak to sustain that infection and they die. But it is not the virus alone, but the virus and the weakened human body together that kill.

I hope these posts help you as we all struggle to live through this global crisis.

Disclosure: Fr. Nicanor is directing my moral theology thesis.

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