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This comic is the 13th comic in a row in a series of comics about the 2020 pandemic of the coronavirus - SARS-CoV-2.
Rather than expressing humanity's fears and pessimism about the pandemic, this strip anthropomorphizes some of the pathogens which afflict humanity and presents their fears and pessimism about possibly going extinct. This serves as a roundabout way of expressing hope and wonder at the ingenuity and tenacity of humans in the face of diseases past (with water sanitation, mosquito netting, and condoms) and present (with the power of social distancing and Gloria Gaynor's hit song I Will Survive). Gaynor recorded a video of herself washing her hands for 20 seconds (the recommended length of time to wash hands for optimal cleanliness) to the background of her hit song.
The three pathogens presented are a virus (a bacteriophage), a small colony of a coccus-shaped bacterium (such as Streptococcus), and a protozoon (a caricature of a ciliate). Bacteriophages do not infect human cells (as the name suggests, they only infect bacteria), and have been studied for use as "phage therapy" for humans, especially in dealing with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections (which is usually what people mean when they talk about "resistance" in the context of pathogens); however, they are iconic, instantly-recognizable viruses, and some have been found to collude with bacteria in forming certain antibiotic-resistant biofilms. Only one kind of ciliate is known to cause human disease; however, ciliates are iconic for protozoa just as bacteriophages are for viruses (see, for example, Gary Larson's now-venerable The Far Side cartoons). The ciliate may be a 'stand-in' for protozoa that cause widespread and dangerous human diseases, such as malaria. The drawing is wildly out of scale; a protozoon is larger than a bacterium, which in turn is much larger than a virus.
"The scariest thing in the universe" to these microbes is the human immune system, represented in the second panel and later by antibodies (Y-shaped drawings) and anthropomorphized macrophages (actual macrophages do not have glaring angry eyes). When a T cell encounters an unfamiliar molecule in the body, such as the surface proteins of SARS-CoV-2, it will search for a B cell that produces a matching antibody. If and when it finds such a B cell, it will command the B cell to rapidly multiply and mass-produce antibodies. Those antibodies will then bind to any antigens they contact, which may impede the antigen (as shown by the tagged protozoon in panel 2 lagging behind its siblings) and will definitely mark them for destruction by macrophages, which engulf ("HUUGGG") and digest antibody-tagged objects they encounter. T cells can also be described as hugging cells, but a hug from a T cell is used to activate other processes, while a hug from a macrophage is a precursor to digestion. White blood cells are quite persistent once they have detected an antigen, even chasing them over many cell lengths in what must be a terrifying experience for the antigen being chased.
The comic humorously considers pasta as an essential part of humans' fight against coronavirus. Pasta is an example of a dried food that can last a long time, if the orders to stay indoors continue. Pasta is a popular dish in Italy, which is experiencing particular difficulties with COVID-19, but not every culture consumes or likes pasta.
The colony of cocci protests that it shouldn't be possible for humans to evolve "pathogen resistance" in the short period of months since the breakout of COVID-19, when humans require over a decade to reach sexual maturity, and in modern times often wait at least two decades before having children. Humans develop immunity to some diseases after being infected, as some B cells become memory cells and are stored for quick re-activation in the case of a later infection, but this is not very effective against viruses which mutate rapidly, such as influenza and the common cold (which is sometimes caused by coronaviruses, although not SARS-CoV-2). Bacteria and viruses, on the other hand, reproduce in a matter of minutes, so that there may be hundreds of generations per day (comparable to the number of generations that have passed for humanity since the beginnings of agriculture), each of which presents opportunities to evolve new antigens that are not recognized by any antibodies present in the body or to evolve resistance to whatever antibiotic drugs a human might be using. However, as the bacteriophage explains, humans generally do not become resistant against pathogens by genetic drift (although there are researchers who are seeking to identify genes that encode resistances to various diseases and then propagate them to other humans through gene editing, as in the He Jiankui affair). Instead, humans "evolve" pathogen resistance through behavioral changes. The behaviors presented in this comic strip include:
- Municipal water supplies, which are filtered and treated to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases, like cholera and dysentery.
- Mosquito netting over beds, and also anti-insect poisoning, to prevent the spread of vector-borne diseases, like malaria.
- Condoms (described as plastic in the comic, but more commonly latex rubber in real life), to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, such as AIDS and syphilis.
- Social or physical distancing, hand-washing, storable food, and electronic communications, to prevent the spread of diseases through casual contact, like COVID-19.
These behaviors do not come from our genomes, passed along through reproduction, but from our brains, passed along by communication. Some of the language of epidemiology is also used in discussion of communication, most notably "going viral" -- in this case, information is going viral to prevent viruses from going viral.
The title text reverts to the point of view of humans and references a famous line from the graphic novel Watchmen, where Rorschach, whilst in prison and surrounded by enemies who want to kill him, proclaims: "I'm not locked up in here with YOU. You're locked up in here with ME." This presents an alternate perspective on quarantine and isolation that some may find more bearable: rather than passively hiding indoors in fear of the virus, we are taking action to fragment the virus population so that our immune systems (and medical intervention, in more serious cases) can defeat it in detail.
[A small colony of coccus bacteria, a bacteriophage, and a protozoon are floating together.]
- Bacteriophage: I'm worried about humans developing resistance to us.
- Bacteriophage: Using pasta.
[Cutaway to macrophages and antibodies chasing three protozoa. One protozoon is already covered in antibodies.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): The human immune system is a nightmare.
- Bacteriophage (narrating): It's the worst.
- Bacteriophage (narrating): It's the scariest thing in the universe.
- Macrophage: Who wants a HUUGGG
- Antibody-covered protozoon: Nooo!
[Close-up on bacteriophage]
- Bacteriophage: We can only survive by staying ahead of it. Keep jumping from person to person, keep mutating and evolving.
- Bacteriophage: But now humans are adapting too fast.
[Water pipes. A mosquito net with a bed under it. An unopened condom package.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): We spread through their water. They built pipes.
- Bacteriophage (narrating): We used mosquitoes. They put out nets and poison everywhere.
- Bacteriophage (narrating): We spread through sex, and suddenly they all had these plastic things.
[Depictions of coronavirus with spikes. Hairbun and Cueball shaking hands, with droplets spraying from both their mouths.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): This time, we really thought we had them.
- Bacteriophage (narrating): One of us got good at transmission through everyday contact.
[A row of 4 sets of human lungs, the first with several black dots, the second and third with increasing black parts, the fourth completely filled with black. A graph showing exponential growth.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): It was great. We were tearing through lungs, spreading like wildfire.
- Voice offscreen: Hooray!
- Voice 2 offscreen: I hate lungs.
[Close-up of bacteriophage "head".]
- Bacteriophage: Then, all of a sudden, humans everywhere just...stopped. They stopped working, stopped seeing friends.
[Megan is sitting on a couch, watching a flat screen. Cueball is at a sink with a mirror, washing his hands. They are facing away from each other.]
- Voice offscreen: What are they doing?
- Voice 2 offscreen: Nothing!
- Voice 2 offscreen: They're just sitting there in their houses washing their hands.
[A single human in a empty room, surrounded by fallen droplets. Among the droplets is a coronavirus.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): Suddenly humans became dead ends. We tried to jump from one to the next, but there's no one to jump to.
- Coronavirus: Help!
- Bacteriophage (narrating): We can't escape.
[Coronaviruses, encroached on by macrophages and streams of antibodies.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): We're trapped in there with those ghastly immune systems.
- Antibodies: IT'S HUUG TIIIIIME
- Macrophage: Come here for a HUUUG
- Macrophage: HUUUUGS
[Coronaviruses covered in antibodies and surrounded by macrophages. Some of the macrophages are devouring viruses. Others contain broken-down remnants.]
- Bacteriophage (narrating): Even if we win a fight, there's nowhere to go.
- Macrophage: HUUUUUUUGGSS
- Macrophage: HUUUUGS
- Bacteriophage (narrating): By staying inside, humans have become resistant.
[Back to the discussion between the coccus, the bacteriophage and the protozoon.]
- Coccus bacteria: How could they evolve that fast? Humans take decades to reproduce!
- Bacteriophage: It's not evolution. It's something with their brains.
- Protozoon: I wondered what those were for!
[Bacteriophage pointing to: Cueball and Megan looking at their phones; Megan and Cueball walking to the right; Megan and Cueball at separate sinks washing their hands.]
- Bacteriophage: Humans started looking at their phones, talking, writing words, and making signs. A human named "Gloria Gaynor" filmed herself singing at her bathroom sink.
- Bacteriophage: And then they bought lots of pasta.
- Bacteriophage: Then, around the world, they all went home and started washing their hands.
[Bacteriophage and protozoon.]
- Bacteriophage: They saw what we were doing and changed their behavior to stop us.
- Protozoon: Brains are the worst.
[Coccus, bacteriophage and protozoon.]
- Coccus bacteria: It's not over, right? They can't sustain this. They must be bored and tired.
- Coccus bacteria: Will they give up?
- Bacteriophage: I don't know. They seem determined to protect each other.
[Coccus, bacteriophage and protozoon.]
- Bacteriophage: And
- Bacteriophage: They have a lot of pasta.
- The title text originally contained a typo in the form of a double negative "We're not not trapped..." This has since been corrected.
Don't be a jerk.
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