Genetics and COVID-19

Years ago, when I was the Director of an organization called Fishtrap, we had a conference at Wallowa Lake on “Fire.” Stephen J. Pyne, the McArthur Fellow who wrote the books on fire in America, was the featured speaker. Forest Service and BLM firefighters from across the Northwest come to hear Pyne and talk with each other. But one strong memory of that conference had nothing to do with fire directly; it had to do with ethnicity and digestion.

Seasoned firefighters told stories of Native Alaskan crews coming south to fight fires. The Alaskans couldn’t stomach the military ready to eat—“MRI”—meals that were served on fires. The solution was to buy suet from the local markets and readjust their diets.

I think about this, about recent news reports of the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 in communities of color and Indian reservations, and about fifty pages (pp. 69-124) in Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.  In those pages Mann tells the story of the diseases that came with the Europeans and killed as many as 90 percent of the indigenous Americans.

He decides against the “low counters”—the academics who argue that smallpox, measles, diptheria, and other contagious diseases could not have wiped out 90 percent of indigenous Americans. The differences between low and high counters were—and are—stark: 8 million people in the new world and fewer than a million in North America vs. 90—112 million overall, with as many as 25 million on the central Mexican plateau alone.

Mann’s analysis involved contemporary accounts of Cortez in Mexico, Pizarro in Peru, and 1700s Russian fur traders’ stories of a smallpox epidemic in Siberia. He interviewed historians, anthropologists, and virologists to understanding how infectious diseases could have killed that many people:

First, the new world was “virgin soil.” The Americans, who did not have domesticated cows or camels, had zero immunity to smallpox, a disease that came from one of those animal versions and had long been roaming across Europe and establishing some kind of herd immunity to its worst ravages in Europeans.

Virologists site another vulnerability in the new world. The small number of human migrants to the Americas meant a more limited gene variability. It meant that indigenous Americans had a narrower range of response to infectious diseases than did Africans and Europeans. An example of this wider range of genetic variability is blood types: Europeans are split roughly half and half between A and O blood types; American Indians in the United States today are 90 percent type O. Among indigenous people in South America it is almost completely type O.

In an analysis that Yale virologist Francis Black provided Mann, Europeans’ broader range of antigens, called HLAs—Europeans have 35 main types; American Indians 17—meant that a larger percentage of Europeans survived infectious disease outbreaks.

A third factor in indigenous Americans’ inability to fight off infectious diseases was something called helper T-cells. Apparently we all have them, and there are two main types: one type helps fight off microorganisms and infectious diseases; the other helps fight parasites. The original Americans were heavily loaded to fight the parasites they’d lived with for thousands of years.

The impacts of COVID-19 on the African-American and Latinx communities appear to be outrageously disproportionate. We hear less of impact in Indian Country, although there have been recent accounts of high numbers among the Navajo and Hopi.

All stories highlight existing pre-conditions—diabetes, heart disease, stress, poor diet and bad water that are part of living in poverty. Studies of racism in medical treatment demonstrate another strong factor in the skewed statistics of who gets COVID-19 and who dies from it.

When this thing plays out—and it will, as all other pandemics have—it will be a different world. (European-born diseases’ impacts on the Americas are the strongest evidence of that.) With the lessons of this one, and strong new leadership, we can do something about discrimination and its impacts on housing, health care, and poverty.

It is common to talk about the high rates of sickle cell anemia in African-Americans and lactose intolerance among some Asian peoples. We know that lighter skin allowed humans to capture more from the sun as populations moved north. Somehow, Native Alaskans are able to get what they need from blubber without fresh greens.

Some of my liberal friends might chide me for slighting environmental factors in the incidence of diseases—I’m not. But I also believe that we can learn from how this virus attacks different groups of humans, and the kinds of defenses different racial groups exhibit. It is only by doing so that we are able to ascertain the true numbers of indigenous Americans who were here before Columbus.

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