Fifteen viruses that have changed the history of humanity

The royal touch was a vain hand-laying procedure practiced by French and English kings during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. His goal was to heal the fateful ailments of his subjects. Although it was used especially against tuberculosis, for a time its practice was extended to other types of diseases, both of bacterial and viral origin.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, the custom was again restricted to the area of ​​scrofula, an infectious process that affects the lymph nodes.

Elizabeth I was a bold, forceful, powerful queen and the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty that ruled England and Ireland. Both her physical appearance and her cosmetic habits were very characteristic. At that time, putting on makeup was a sign of distinction and the queen did it profusely with Venetian ceruse, a white pigment also known as white lead.

The makeup gave her a pristine white, almost virginal look and matched her nickname, “the Virgin Queen”. It is that stamp of whitish skin that has passed to posterity and has reached our days.

 The reason why Elizabeth I used such an amount of makeup was to hide the accentuated and numerous facial marks that a deadly disease that she contracted at the age of 29 had given her: smallpox. She managed to survive, but the scars that the virus left on her body stayed with her all her life.

Like smallpox, many other viruses have played an essential role in important episodes in history, be it in literature, art, science, politics or in many other earthly facets that make up the edges of our existence as a species. These are just some examples.

Smallpox and the first mass vaccination campaign

Smallpox is the disease caused by the variola virus, a highly contagious orthopoxvirus that killed the all-powerful Ramses V, fourth pharaoh of the 20th dynasty of Egypt, and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma.

The spread of the fateful smallpox during the 18th and 19th centuries caused the Spanish military doctor Francisco Javier de Balmis y Berenguer to organize “the Royal Philanthropic Vaccine Expedition” in 1803, nicknamed the Balmis Expedition. His goal was to vaccinate all the subjects of the Spanish Empire against this disease.

The action was supported and paid for by King Carlos IV, committed to the cause after seeing his daughter, the Infanta Maria Teresa, die of smallpox. The feat, which took place between 1803 and 1814, constituted the first mass vaccination campaign in history.

In 1980, the World Health Organization (WHO) certified the eradication of smallpox as a result of an exceptional global vaccination campaign led by epidemiologist Donald Henderson.

 Tobacco mosaic virus and the development of virology

 In 1882, the German Adolf Mayer first described tobacco mosaic disease. At the same time, in St. Petersburg, Dmitri Ivanovsky was also studying pathology. Ivanovsky demonstrated that the agent that caused it passed through a sterilizing filter, without realizing that he had discovered a new type of infectious agent: viruses.

The tobacco mosaic virus allowed the development of virology. He also contributed significantly to the understanding of the genetic nature of RNA, the genetic code and to the advancement of molecular biology and the understanding of the physicochemical and antigenic properties of macromolecules.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus and AIDS: the first major media pandemic

At the end of the 20th century, the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) had a devastating impact on the planet’s social, economic, health and demographic spheres, becoming the first major pandemic faced by a technologically advanced society.

In its last stages it is common for one of the more than 20 opportunistic infections or cancers related to the spread of the virus to occur. At that time, it is applied that the person suffers from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).

To date, it is estimated that more than 35 million people have died from AIDS-related causes. Among them, celebrities like Freddy Mercury, Rock Hudson or Anthony Perkins, who helped make the disease visible.

The presence of the virus changed the world, changing the customs, behavior, health habits, drug use, prevention methods, health care practices, and sexual relations of millions of people.

 The tulip mosaic virus and the “business of the air”

The tulip mosaic virus causes a redistribution of the pigments in the tulip flower, creating wonderful and unique specimens. In the middle of the 16th century, it affected tulip cultivation in Holland for the first time, giving rise to unpredictable, unrepeatable varieties, which ignited the greed and desire of buyers.

Possession of one of those striking tulips was a symbol of opulence and power. Thus, in 1623, the price of a single bulb exceeded five times the annual salary of a craftsman.

In 1637 speculation for tulip bulbs collapsed. Bankruptcies plagued the country, the Dutch economy collapsed, and the social landscape was reorganized. The phenomenon was known as windhandel (air business) and constituted the first great economic bubble in history.

The enterobacteriophage T4

The T4 bacteriophage or T4 phage is a virus that infects the Escherichia coli bacterium and one of the most widely used model organisms in scientific laboratories.

It is easy and safe to grow, which is why its study has intensified since the middle of the 20th century. As a result, many of the basic and general principles of the molecular biology and evolution of these pathogens were discovered. The little virus changed the course of scientific research and elementary science worldwide.

What role did measles have in the colonization of America?

Measles is a highly contagious viral disease that can cause serious complications such as blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhea, ear infections, or pneumonia.

According to estimates by the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2018 more than 140,000 people died of measles worldwide.

It arrived on the American continent in the 15th century, together with the Spanish colonizers. The indigenous people were not immunized against the disease, so the measles and smallpox epidemics made it easier for the conquistadors Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, supported by only a few hundred soldiers, to subdue powerful well-established armies such as the Aztec of Moctezuma , in Mexico, or the Inca of Huayna Capac, in Peru.

SARS-CoV, a turning point in the Asian economy

SARS-CoV is a coronavirus that was first detected in 2002 in the Chinese province of Guangdong. It is responsible for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). According to the WHO, more than 8,000 people fell ill with SARS during the 2003 outbreak. 774 died.

The new disease caused the Chinese government to impose quarantines and isolation on a large part of the population, preventing the development of normal business practices. As a consequence, some companies began to promote electronic commerce.

For example, the Alibaba platform business grew by 50%. The company launched Taobao, which in just two years overtook eBay, becoming the Chinese market leader and facilitating the development of today’s thriving e-commerce.

How Yellow Fever Interrupted the Construction of the Panama Canal

Yellow fever is an acute and hemorrhagic viral disease, caused by arboviruses of the Flavivirus genus and transmitted by infected mosquitoes of the Aedes and Haemogogus genera . At the end of the 19th century, the disease hampered the construction of the Panama Canal. Since workers fell ill or abandoned the post for fear of contagion, its construction was delayed 33 years.

In fact, yellow fever, malaria and disastrous management led to the abandonment of the project and the end of the “French channel”. This made the United States government finance the project, by obtaining the exploitation and construction rights. Finally, it was inaugurated on August 15, 1914, becoming one of the most important engineering works in history.

 African swine fever: a drag on the pork market in 2018

African swine fever (ASF) is a highly contagious disease caused by a DNA virus from the Asfarviridae family. It does not represent a threat to human health, but it is lethal to domestic pigs and wild boars of all ages.

Since ASF is a notifiable disease to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), when an outbreak appears on a pig farm, all pigs must be culled and strict sanitary measures must be implemented. Actions that cause direct and indirect economic losses and social consequences in the affected regions.

In August 2018, an ASF outbreak appeared in Northeast China and quickly spread across the country. Despite the fact that China is one of the largest producers and consumers of pork in the world, the disease killed 40% of these animals in the country. Hundreds of millions of animals died or had to be euthanized.

The result was a chronic shortage of pork and skyrocketing prices. Pork imports increased but, since there were not enough pigs in the world to supply China, prices in all countries rose.

Faced with the impossibility of raising pigs, China gave priority to chicken production. In addition, it stopped buying cereals and soybeans for feed in the foreign market, disrupting all markets globally.

 The polio vaccine, musical inspiration

The polio virus is transmitted from person to person, most often via the fecal-oral route, but it can also be transmitted through contaminated food or water. During the 20th century the disease reached epidemic proportions. Fighting it was a preferential objective to try to achieve its eradication.

 In 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt contracted polio and the virus confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Hence, when he became president of the United States in 1933, he began the well-known “war against polio”. Roosevelt’s popularity was so great that he allowed him to be the only president to win four American elections.

In 1963, the Government carried out an aggressive advertising campaign in favor of vaccination against polio with the Sabin vaccine. Administering this to one of her children would inspire composer Robert Sherman to create one of the most famous melodies in film history: “A Spoonful Of Sugar” by Mary Poppins.

 Human adenovirus type 12

Adenoviruses were first discovered in 1953 by Wallace Rowe. They were isolated from a culture of adenoid tissue cells, hence the surname Adenoviridae.

These are small viruses that include 7 human adenovirus species (A to G) and 57 immunologically distinct serotypes. In 1962, John Trentin and his colleagues discovered that, under laboratory conditions, the virus caused cancer in baby hamsters. This was the first demonstration of oncogenic activity caused by a human virus.

Adenoviruses have helped scientists study the functions of genes. Also to understand messenger RNA splicing, alternative polyadenylation, enhancers, and protein inactivation of tumor suppressor genes.

H1N1 flu virus, Spanish flu and baby boom

Seasonal flu is a well-known and feared viral disease. Some of its strains have caused terrible pandemics. The most notable, known as the Spanish flu in 1918, caused the death of more than 40 million people.

 The causative agent was the H1N1 type of influenza virus. This, by unleashing an uncontrolled storm of cytokines, led to the uncontrolled immune system and irreversible lung inflammation and damage.

The pandemic revealed that infectious diseases were a problem that needed to be addressed at the population level. During the following years, many countries changed their public health strategy. On the one hand, they chose to adopt the concept of socialized medicine; on the other, they strengthened the surveillance and medical care systems.

The dramatic population decline was offset in the following years by the baby boom effect . Encouraged by the strategies of the governments of numerous countries, it boosted the birth rate and the characteristic large families of the mid-20th century.

The John Cunningham Virus

The John Cunningham virus or JC virus is very common. In fact, it is present between 50 and 70% of the human population. Although contracted during childhood, it appears to lie dormant until something (such as suppression of the immune system) reactivates it, allowing it to proliferate, potentially leading to serious brain infections.

There are at least 14 virus subtypes associated with different human populations. Due to its presumed co-divergence with humans, the JC virus has been used as a genetic marker for human evolution and migration. It has been observed that those present in people native to northeast Asia are very similar to those possessed by native North Americans. This situation would support the hypothesis of an archaic migration from Asia to North America via the Beringian land bridge.

What is the relationship between the Snow White character and chickenpox?

Chickenpox is an acute systemic infection caused by the varicella-zoster virus that usually appears in childhood. Its epidemics occur both in winter and at the beginning of spring and are repeated in cycles of 3 or 4 years.

Apparently, the infection maintains a certain relationship with the character of Snow White: her story is inspired by the figure of Maria Sophia Margaretha Catharina von Erthal, a motherless German princess who suffered partial blindness during her childhood after contracting chicken pox. Catharina’s kindness, together with the handicap that she suffered from, earned her the appreciation and unconditional affection of the people.

Years later, the story reached the ears of the Grimm brothers who built and furnished a magnificent story around it. Thus, unintentionally, chicken pox originated a wonderful story that has been with us since childhood.

 The current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the Dutch mink industry

The current outbreak of the covid-19 disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus was first reported in Wuhan, China on December 31, 2019. Since then, the virus has killed more than 1,200,000 people and It has accelerated profound changes in our society, such as habitual behavior, the way we relate to each other, and even the lines of business in different countries.

Many animals are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection. Especially mink, which manifest respiratory problems similar to humans.

The Netherlands is the fourth country in the world in mink production (about 6 million animals per year). Although in 2012 the Dutch senate voted to ban its breeding on ethical grounds and allowed a 12-year transition period, the situation has radically changed: the rapid spread of SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than a third from all Dutch mink farms showing evidence of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from animal to human within mink farms.

For this reason, the Dutch government has been forced to bring forward the end of the mink breeding programs from January 1, 2024 to the end of March 2021.

In short, there are many viruses that have modified our history. Let us be sure that in the future they will continue to be protagonists of our lives.

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