Why Zika and Other Diseases Don’t Disprove the Goodness of God

It’s been two years since Christian missionaries and aid workers in Zika-infested areas wrestled with whether to stay or go after the virus triggered an international public health emergency. Last week, the CDC released a new report indicating for the first time what happens as babies exposed to the Zika virus grow older—they may face problems when none presented at birth.

Seeing the most vulnerable in our society suffering so cruelly can raise questions about God’s goodness. Anjeanette “AJ” Roberts, a microbiologist and scholar at Reasons to Believe, began thinking about these issues in graduate school.

In the 30 years since, Roberts’s work at the National Institute of Health testing the SARS virus on older mice contributed to an understanding of the pathology of the disease and how it affects older humans. As a postdoctorate scholar at Yale University, Roberts worked on proof of concept vaccines that used the same vector now being used to manufacture the Ebola vaccine.

CT recently asked her to explain how her work affected her view of God and his creation.

What are viruses? Where do viruses come from?

The first virus was discovered in the late 1800s, and it was a virus that infected tobacco plants, the tobacco mosaic virus. The word virus basically referred to a poisonous entity.

Viruses aren’t really living. (Bacteria are actually living cells.) There’s a little bit of debate in the field about whether they’re alive or not, but living things can utilize nutrients for energy and produce waste. Viruses can’t do any of those things. All viruses share the characteristic that they cannot make more virus outside of a living cell.

Where did viruses originate? No one knows. There are all kinds of theories out there. It’s a very difficult scenario to describe mechanistically their origin, because you can’t have a virus until you have something living that [can] reproduce the virus, at least at the complexity that we know them today.

What do we know about viruses’ role in Creation?

The vast majority of viruses out there are viruses that infect bacteria and other single-cell organisms. Bacteria are absolutely critical to the life of everything on planet Earth. Bacteria are primary producers. What that means is that they harvest inorganic compounds from nature and make biologically relevant compounds.

Bacteria are also masters at reproduction. Some bacteria can double their population in 20 minutes. It’s absolutely mind-boggling when you consider how well bacteria can reproduce, adapt, and survive. It’s not an overstatement to say that if there weren’t viruses that were controlling the bacteria populations, then there would be no environmental resources and no ecological space for other types of organisms to live on Earth. It would be one giant ball of single-cell organisms, primarily bacteria. But we have these viruses, and viruses that infect bacteria outnumber bacteria in the biome of Earth by a factor of about 10 to 15, so the bacterial population is kept in check.

Also, when those bacteria are broken open by the viruses that infect them, all the materials they’ve made are now released in the environment for consumption by other organisms. So viruses are at the very foundation of life on Earth; there is an extremely fine-tuned ecological system where you have masters of reproduction that can take inorganic materials and make biologically relevant materials kept in check by things that can’t replicate on their own. It’s just amazing.

How many viruses affect human health negatively?

We’re honestly discovering new viruses pretty regularly. For instance, remember SARS back in 2003? That was discovered to be a new type of coronavirus, but before that, there were only two known types of human coronaviruses that cause colds. So now scientists are going out and looking for more coronaviruses associated with severe respiratory disorders in other animals, and they’re finding them. MERS is a new type of coronavirus that causes respiratory disease in the Middle East, and it’s probably coming from camels.

But it’s a bit of a difficult question because we may not know all of the viruses that are associated with human disease yet. In 2012 there were over 200 identified viral species infecting humans and an estimated three to four new viral species discovered every year.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Rebecca Randall