Ebola: my 2020 Journey

Zaire ebolavirus

Edited by Will Daly

I’m Zaire ebolavirus. Ebola to my friends and detractors alike. There’s really no way to ease into that fact. Whether you’re a human or a pathogen you know my name and what I’m capable of. “Not capable of ending a sentence without a preposition”, you may say. Well, to that I say English is the Jazz of languages, and the sooner you free yourself from many of its supposed limitations, the higher and further you’ll fly. I also kill roughly half the people I infect within six to sixteen days, so hanging prepositions are the least of your problems when I’m around.

My intention in writing this piece is not to brag. It’s to set the record straight and to specifically address the wider Virus, Bacteria, Parasite and Prion community, of which I am a proud and longstanding member. Recently I took a backseat to a young and dynamic virus known to the world as the Coronavirus. Or COVID-19. But these are names for the disease caused by the virus, not the virus. The virus you’d have to be living under a rock (shoutout to cyanobacteria) not to have been impacted by, is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. Quite the mouthful. Who knows what my name would have been if I wasn’t fortunate enough to have been discovered near a tributary of the Congo River?

I’m notoriously media-shy, preferring to let my infection do the talking. But in recent weeks SARS-CoV-2 has made a number of public comments, including the release of a “diss track” calling me out. Many in my community were shocked and saddened by my silence, some even suggesting and offering to help with a “diss track” of my own in response. I’m almost 45 years old, I don’t do “diss tracks”. If you think I should automatically identify with hip hop because of where I was born then I find your assertion racist and you should check your privilege.

I won’t rebroadcast the detail of their attacks. That’s not the aim here. Instead, I want to share what the last six months have been like and what it’s taught me along the way.

From the very beginning when SARS-CoV-2 made headlines world-wide, I took a keen interest in their journey. I noted we both got our start through bats. The panic was very familiar too, not just when I was grabbing headlines but with the OG SARS, HPAI A(H5N1), H1N1, ZIKV and many, many more. I’m always excited to see the novel ways pathogens exploit the weaknesses of organisms. Especially humans, who are truly a formidable opponent. My strong belief is the world’s a big place, and there’s more than enough room for all of us in this absurdist dance we call existence.

Obviously I can’t go as far as to say live and let live, because I’m Ebola.

So I’ve never had a problem with the up and comers, the new kids on the block. Did it feel weird to be out of the spotlight? Absolutely. I was unprepared for how much I missed the attention, no doubt. The first few months were lonely, but they gave me much needed time to reflect, to reexamine my place in the universe.

Fame is hollow, that much I know. Ask Yersinia pestis, they’ll tell you. The Black Death is often a punch line these days, but Yersinia pestis couldn’t give a rats. As an elder statesman of our community they’ve seen it all, and come out the other side without being completely eradicated or without mutating into benignity. Who knew benignity was a word? Until 30 seconds ago I sure didn’t.

The older and more experienced I get, the happier I am to admit my flaws, whether they are gaps in knowledge or the way in which I infect animals. In many ways I’m the victim of my own success. If I had a longer incubation period this planet would be a very different place right now. But that’s the luck of the draw, and it’s important for pathogens old and new to always remember the role luck plays in our success, and how quickly fortunes can change. There are viruses and bacteria I won’t name that were headed for infamy and then, in the blink of an eye, mutated too early into a benign strain before they ever got the chance to shine.

SARS-CoV-2 has taken the world by storm but it’s had a lot of luck. That’s not something I’ve heard it acknowledge. Not once. It wouldn’t be here if not for a dude who was mad for bats, and it certainly wouldn’t be as popular in the United States if not for a fat orange arse-clown. If I was over there right now the devastation would make Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road look like Schoolies Week. Or Spring Break if you prefer. Now there are two places I could go heroically apocalyptic.

If SARS-CoV-2 wants to publicly disrespect me, then they are more than welcome. My completion rate is ridiculous, and more than speaks for itself. The only thing on my mind is the game. Not the fame and spoils that come with it. The attention SARS-CoV-2 has brought on itself may well be its undoing because humans are a crafty adversary. We have the numbers, but that’s not always enough to win the battle, and SARS-CoV-2 may find that out the hard way.

During my most recent outbreak many laboratories around the world took aim at yours truly. I had been incurable for over four decades and naively felt indestructible. I was wrong. This marked the lowest point in my life. But it showed that when you’re successful and at the very top of your game, people are going to come after you. SARS-CoV-2 is not my enemy and I can truly say I wish them every success. They should know, however, that nothing lasts forever, not even the cold chill-inducing November rain.

I also hold no ill-will towards humans trying to decimate my kind. Humans gonna humans just like viruses gonna virus. In years gone by it was a total power trip to spread fear. But I also lived in constant fear. Just like the humans filled with fear about other humans who are currently spreading fear about other humans. They have picked the wrong enemy and should never ever be trusted. Anytime they emerge which is always too often, it strikes me as strange just how similar they are to viruses. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but they are making it way too easy for the real pathogens, and I’d prefer a fair contest.

It took deep reflection to realise it’s about infection. I exist for the game, not the fame.

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