Pandemic on the Easy Setting


I keep telling people that this whole Covid-19 thing is pandemic on the easy setting. I’ve been interested in infectious diseases for a very long time, and frankly we have been overdue for a pandemic in this era of global travel for quite some time now. That it has been so mild and non-lethal is a huge relief. And yes, I know there are those out there right now clutching their pearls and gasping. I am not making light of the deaths, or the illnesses. They are very real. They are a mere fraction of what could have been. This is not a terrible disease, when you pull back and look at the larger picture. The virus is a successful one. 

A successful virus is one that does not kill it’s hosts. If they do, then they lose their ability to reproduce – virii are not technically alive, and depend fully on their host to make more of themselves. It’s the process of turning a body, like a human, into a giant xerox machine that brings on the ill feeling in that body. An unsuccessful virus kills it’s hosts, and if it does so quickly, and frequently, then the virus or other pathogen can become extinct. We know it has happened before. We (in terms of the scientific community) have proof of that happening around the time of the Fall of Rome. I wrote a brief paper on it about six years ago, and it seemed like now was a good time to revive that and think about how lucky we are today. We are not faced with a disease that rages like a wildfire until it has burnt itself out so thoroughly that it went extinct for lack of more humans to kill. 

Before the Black Death, there was Justinian’s Plague. Blamed for, among other things, the fall of Rome, it devastated Europe in a time most of us know little about.

“Epidemiological controversy exists in three areas concerning this pandemic,”wrote Molgaard, Golbeck and Ryan in 2012. They were uncertain, they continued, if the plague that struck between 540 and 544 AD during the reign of Justinian was Yersinia pestis, or another pathogen. They were equally uncertain if it were the same cause as the some eighteen other outbreaks that flared across Europe during the next two hundred years, and the same pathogen that would later cause London’s Black Death. However, through their research, they showed that the disease spread from port to port through the Roman Empire, leaving untold numbers dead in its wake (Molgaard, 2012).

Only a couple of years earlier, Altschuler and Kariuki proposed in Medical Hypotheses that the Justinian Plague might not have been the zoonotic Y. pestis, but the same strain of virus, Haemophilus influenzae, that was responsible centuries later for the 1918 Flu Pandemic. This seemed to defy historians such as Procopius, who wrote at the time of the plague were clear with their descriptions of what would later be called bubonic plague, “A bubonic swelling developed, not only where the part of the body under the stomach is also called the ‘bubon’ but also within the armpit, and in some beside the ears and in places on the thighs (Procopius, 2009).”

Into this uncertainty, an exciting new discovery came in 2014, when a team of researchers were able to extract DNA from the teeth of two victims of the Justinian plague. Working with radiocarbon dating, the remains were identified as having died in the time of the plague, and as they were found in a mass grave, the assumption was made that the adult and child were victims of the disease. The isolated DNA was sequenced, and compared to Y. pestis (Wagner, 2014).

The results of the sequencing proved that while the Justinian Plague, which had possibly been responsible for the downfall of the Roman Empire (Molgaard, 2012), was a variant of the same pathogen to strike down London and Europe in the Black Death, it was not the same bacterium. Instead, the lineage of this bacteria is lost in the mists of history, an independently emerging zoonosis that became extinct at some point in the past (Wagner, 2014).


Works Cited

  • Altschuler, E.L. ( 1 ), and Y.M. ( 2 ) Kariuki. “Was The Justinian Plague Caused By The 1918 Flu Virus?.” Medical Hypotheses 72.2 (2009): 234. Scopus®. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.
  • Molgaard, Craig A., Amanda L. Golbeck, and Kerry E. Ryan. “Justinian’s Plague, Hagiography And Monasticism.” International Journal Of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences 6.10 (2012): 67-80. Academic Search Complete. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.
  • Procopius. “unknown.” The Works of Procopius: The Secret History and the Wars of Justinian . unknown: Halcyon Classics, 2009. 117. Print.
  • Wagner, D.M. ( 1 ), et al. “Yersinia Pestis And The Plague Of Justinian 541-543 AD: A Genomic Analysis.” The Lancet Infectious Diseases 14.4 (2014): 319-326. Scopus®. Web. 26 Aug. 2014.


4 responses to “Pandemic on the Easy Setting”

  1. Draven Avatar

    so stop touching those remains before it becomes un-extinct?

    1. There’s a SF plot for you. Hits close to home right now!

  2. McChuck Avatar

    This has been more panicdemic than pandemic.

    1. Can’t spell Pandemic without panic. Which is why I keep saying not to do it!