Viruses might not always be the enemy. Like bacteria, they may play a key role in protecting us from illness. 

The conventional wisdom surrounding viruses paints a scary picture of tiny, silent invaders that turn our lives upside down. Between 291,000 and 646,000 people worldwide die from influenza complications every year. This year’s coronavirus epidemic has killed almost 260,000 at the time of writing and put millions on unemployment as a consequence of lockdowns.

However, new information on the virome and emerging theories on why we “catch” viral infections challenge the idea that everyone is equally vulnerable. Scientists have long been debating whether viruses make us all equally sick, or whether a sick body makes one more vulnerable to something like the coronavirus? New research on something scientists are calling the “virome” might hold some answers. 

What Is The Virome?

Our microbiome is traditionally thought to be made up of bacteria living inside our guts, but we now know that the microbiome includes viruses too. These viruses keep bacterial populations in check while maintaining immune system activity. Much of the virome is made up of bacteriophages, a type of virus that attacks bacteria. In fact, the efficacy of fecal transplants for Clostridium difficile infections may be due to the types of viruses they contain. While antimicrobial therapy fails to cure one-third of patients, only 15 percent of people using fecal transplants suffer a recurrence of infection. C. difficile infections are linked with a lower diversity of bacteriophages from the Caudovirales family. 

Our virome, it is thought, also helps keep a low level of antiviral immune chemicals circulating that guard against disease-causing viruses. This tonic-like effect helps to keep the fast but non-specific innate immune system active and triggers interferon production. Turning on interferon production aids activation of the adaptive immune system

The innate immune system is rapid and non-specific, as it works against any pathogen. It includes physical defenses, such as the skin or acid barriers. A range of immune cells that mount generalized attacks are also part of innate immunity. The adaptive immune system involves B and T lymphocytes. These immune cells “memorize” specific pathogens to create specific antibodies towards them for a more immediate response later. It can take three or more days for adaptive immunity to kick in. Vaccines are manufactured and sold based on the belief that only adaptive immunity has memory of previous infections. However, the innate immune system, including our natural killer (NK) cells, have “memory” too. Lab studies have shown that NK cells can respond in similar ways to adaptive immune cells after stimulation by familiar viruses. 

Lessons From Past Epidemics

Let’s rewind to the 2009 swine flu (H1N1) epidemic, which, unlike the coronavirus, mostly claimed the lives of younger adults. Despite up to half a million tragic deaths and possibly over one billion infections, it did bring one interesting concept to light. Several countries, including Norway, found their populations less vulnerable. Researchers think that other, more familiar and less dangerous respiratory viral infections, such as those of rhinoviruses (which cause the common cold) may have prevented the swine flu’s ability to cause infection. It is thought that the production of interferon and other immune chemicals were responsible. 

Today, researchers are under a lot of pressure to develop a vaccine for the novel coronavirus as quickly as possible. However, some studies have linked the flu shot with a higher risk of other respiratory viral infections. Research involving 115 children and young teenagers found a far higher rate of swine flu, rhinovirus, influenza A and other respiratory viruses among those who were vaccinated. Another study on Department of Defense personnel only found a greater risk of coronavirus and metapneumovirus after vaccination. They also had lower rates of certain other respiratory viral infections. However, DoD members must be at peak physical performance, so these results may not be generalizable to everyone else. These studies suggest that vaccines against some viruses may make us more vulnerable to others. 

The Xenohormetic Hypothesis And Viral Infections

The xenohormetic hypothesis is another challenger to conventional ideas around viral infections. This theory posits that animals and fungi send out “danger” signals to other cells in their bodies or other organisms. Plants send similar danger signals in the presence of bugs, herbicides, and other hazards that bud out from their cells and resemble microbes. These signals instruct their recipient to prepare for adversity when conditions are still favorable and they can better fight infection. In a nutshell, viruses may in fact be the secretions of a poisoned cell. Dr. Thomas Cowan explains in an interview with Sayer Ji, founder of GreenMedInfo, that the xenohormetic hypothesis was developed by Rudolf Steiner during, or possibly after, the 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic.

The Role Of Fear And Stress In Infection

Steiner also believes that fear lowers our resistance to viral infections. Both he and Florence Nightingale state that letting go of fears made them more resistant to disease. More research is needed in order to support this hypothesis, but it’s worth remembering that viruses may be messengers produced by the human body to alert other cells and people to danger. Fear and worry are known by modern science to impair the immune response, too. For example, one study found that a fear-inducing stimulus only impaired immunity in those with high “trait worry” scores. Fear and stress can also increase inflammation, which is meant to be a short-term response allowing for a speedy resolution of an infection or injury. It is also important to remember that the majority of coronavirus deaths have occurred in people previously diagnosed with chronic illnesses or obesity. Many of these, obesity included, are linked with inflammation. 

Sayer Ji and others point out that the fear and stress that comes along with the current pandemic, with worries about contagion, constant news reports, social distancing, and financial stress might make people even more vulnerable. When the stress hormone cortisol rises, our immune response is dampened, hence allopathic medicine’s use of treatments like corticosteroids for inflammatory conditions. Some conditions are known to be brought on by stress.  In humans, we only develop shingles when our immunity has been weakened by factors such as stress

Is PCR Testing Worthwhile For Viral Infections?

Current research shows that we carry viruses as part of the microbiome. Additionally, a new model from Oxford University even estimates that millions of people may already be immune to the coronavirus, including up to half of the United Kingdom’s population. One issue with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing to diagnose coronavirus is, therefore, the question of whether it is already a normal part of the virome, including in those already immune. PCR testing involves the identification of DNA that is unique to the virus and amplification to allow for analysis. In that case, there may only be a correlation and not causation. 

When Sayer Ji’s interview with Thomas Cowan delves into the validity of PCR testing, Cowan explains a potential issue with it.

If you get it up to 60 cycles, you find [the coronavirus] with everybody … but if you do it 35 cycles and you don’t find it with anybody, you can actually, by choosing the number of cycles, choose how many people will test positive.

Difference In Cycles

There is even a difference between studies when it comes to the number of cycles used. In one study, 37 cycles are classified as “positive”, while another considers 36 as positive and 37 as indeterminate. This is a significant difference because the number of DNA copies doubles with every cycle. Too many cycles and a normal part of the virome may appear to be behind an illness. PCR testing may also cause false negatives if there is a poor match between the section of DNA tested and the patient’s virus, or if viral load is too low. More research is needed to refine PCR testing, in order to prevent components of our viromes tripping the proverbial alarm.  

New information may send germ theory, where bacterial and viral infections are caused solely by pathogens, from the dominant belief system straight to the history books. The truth is that we host thousands of microbial species at any given time. Our state of health determines whether or not viruses and bacteria can overpopulate our bodies and make us sick, or perhaps even if we produce viruses ourselves.

Alexandra Preston is an Australian naturopath, passionate about empowering others to take charge of their health and healing the planet. Her special area of interest in natural health is antiaging; she also loves the beach and is a semi-professional dancer.

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