Dr. Kenneth Kunz interview: World War COVID, the Olympics, and the Biology of Human Connection

I have been ‘assaulted’ by all sorts of conspiratorial nonsense and sensationalized fantasy regarding the origins of COVID-19. I have to smile when some suggest that COVID-19 is an agent of bioterror that was purposefully and genetically engineered in a virology laboratory, and then escaped or was released by design. When we consider the ongoing miracle of evolution based upon natural selection and the vast diversity of life on the planet, nature itself has clearly proven to be more crafty, cunning, and imaginative than an entire world full of plotting human scientists.

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© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated

Dr. Kenneth Kunz. Photo credit: Leona Fowler Photography, Victoria, BC

Dr. Kenneth Kunz is trained as a medical oncologist, molecular pharmacologist, and most recently as a mental health and addictions consultant with Strength Counselling Services. He is also a runner, competing primarily in the 400 and 800-metre track events.

He feels that the 800 is the most daunting, unforgiving and exhilarating of all race distances.

He plans to continue training, competing, and running personal bests in these distances for as many years that his body will allow.

Personal bests (55-plus age-group)

400m – 65.85
600m – 1:46.86
800m – 2:29.15

Kunz shares a fascinating perspective on the Coronavirus and the pandemic during this interview.

Christopher Kelsall: Apparently, Coronavirus all started with the consumption of bats or the consumption of animals that may have been infected by bats in Wuhan, China. Is this true?

Dr. Kenneth Kunz: Yes, although the concept may seem exotic, this is quite true. In fact, there is nothing unusual about it, and I don’t feel that any particular party is to blame for the crisis. Biologists tell us that about 60% of all the infectious diseases that occur in humans can originate in and be transmitted by animals. Further, about 75% of the “newly emerging diseases” such as Ebola, HIV, and most recently, COVID-19, have their origins in the animal kingdom, especially bats, which are a frequent source of viral infections for humans. These viruses make up a normal part of the biology of bats, which are everywhere ubiquitous, especially in Asia. Since bats fly at night, we are often unaware of them and of the elimination products they drop from the dark, which serves as a major source of contamination to human food and water. But bats, or any animal for that matter – living or dead – whether it be an insect, worm, fish, amphibian, reptile, bird, or mammal (including dogs, cats, and even our human friends) can act as a reservoir, host, and vector for an endless pandora’s box of infectious agents.

CK: Is this just the beginning or an expected continuation?

KK: This will be a recurring phenomenon. When infections or infestations are spread from animals to humans, we call the resulting illnesses zoonotic diseases. Over the epochs, successive and sometimes catastrophic waves of zoonotic pandemics have washed over humankind. The interesting thing about humans and history is that – thankfully – when it comes to pain, loss, and suffering, we are programmed to forget, which forms a basis for ongoing hope and resilience. Thus, despite several recent epidemics, which have been quickly forgotten by society, COVID-19 ‘appears’ to have struck out of nowhere; but disease ecologists know differently and they have been expecting it. And the carnage wrought by coronavirus won’t be the last viral or another pandemic either, as biologists estimate that there may be up to 1.7 million different pathogenic viruses that are waiting for the right opportunity to emerge. To bring future pandemics into context, scientists have calculated that there are about one trillion different species currently living on earth. Since Homo sapiens represent only 0.01% of these, most other life forms are either plants or microbes and of the latter, only one-thousandth of one percent (0.00001%) have so far been characterized.

CK: With all these infectious agents that exist in the world, why is it that we haven’t been completely consumed by infection?

KK: As I learned through treating thousands of patients during my medicine fellowship, there are few things in the biological universe that can match the awesome endurance and the horrendous defensive power of a healthy human immune system. But this miracle is the culmination of billions of years of exhaustive evolutionary trial and error. Consider that life emerged on earth just after the formation of the oceans, about 4.4 billion years ago. Since that time, every surviving species on the planet has had the time to meticulously and painstakingly develop a set of immune system strategies to avoid extinction through being overwhelmed by other competing organisms.

CK: For example?

KK: As a prime example, my graduate research project in molecular pharmacology, conducted in the laboratories of William A. Remers at the University of Arizona, involved exploring how the chemical structure of an antitumor antibiotic called mitomycin C influenced its biological activity. Mitomycin C is a small, complex, fast-acting, and extremely deadly natural product that is carefully engineered and released into the soil by a species of a bacterium called streptomyces. When activated, this molecule can dispassionately oxidize, hack into pieces, and annihilate the DNA of any other organism that happens to get close enough to experience its molecular wrath. If a life form as simple as a single-celled bacterium can lethally defend itself in this way, think of what a sophisticated, highly-evolved, multicellular organism like a human being can do. The average human body has more than 30 trillion cells, spread over more than 200 different cell types that constitute up to 100 different organ systems. This miraculous construct requires careful protection by a tried and true immune surveillance system, one which has been continually perfected over hundreds of millions of years and is vigorously enforced 24-hours a day.

CK: So, what are the mechanisms by which humans avoid being consumed by microbes, and how did COVID-19 get around this?

KK: The first layers of human defence are the specialized outer protective coverings of the body. This includes the skin and the linings of our airways, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract, along with their associated barrier-forming secretions; mucus, saliva, tears, skin oil, and ear wax, among others. Even waste products like urine and stool have a protective role because, during their excretion, they constantly flush pathogens out of our systems. Then comes the immune system proper. This consists of an array of biologically intelligent and aggressive white blood cells, the neutralizing immunoglobulins they produce, and lethal complement proteins, all of which are variously synthesized in the bone marrow, liver, spleen, and thymus gland.

Acting in collaboration, these elements are widely circulated throughout the blood, lymphatic system, and all tissues of the body, where they wait, watch, and guard. Most of the time, the system is able to ward off almost all invading infectious agents. Furthermore, when healthy, the immune system keeps a meticulous record of any pathogen it has ever encountered, and if challenged a second time, can usually destroy the invader quickly. Some infections, however, such as influenza and the common cold, cause repetitive illnesses in the same person. This is because there are so many different strains of these respiratory viruses, and, by natural selection, they continually mutate in a mindless and never-ending quest to shift their molecular landscapes into novel vistas that the human immune system has never before encountered.

CK: How has COVID-19 gotten around the human immune system?

KK: COVID-19 is only one branch of about seven different varieties of pathogenic coronaviruses that inflict disease in humans. The infections range in severity from asymptomatic, through mild, moderate, and severe cases of the common cold, to bronchitis and outright pneumonia so overwhelming that it leads to fulminant respiratory failure and death. We have seen these waves before; the SARS epidemic of 2002, which originated from horseshoe bats and spread through palm civets and raccoon dogs to humans, infecting over 8,000 people and demonstrating a case fatality rate of 9%. This was followed ten years later by the MERS epidemic, where the virus spread from bats to camels and then humans and infected over 2,400 people – this time with an alarming case fatality rate of 37%. It is not surprising that, eight years later, here we are again, right in the middle of another but this time more thoroughgoing viral upsurge. Now it is COVID-19, and it continues to be heading toward apocalyptic proportions.

The ‘Coronavirus Disease of 2019’ therefore is just the latest, new wave version built off an earlier coronaviral theme. However, COVID-19 has proven more infectious and more transmissible in a human-to-human way. This is because the virus has mutated to develop a ‘novel’ protein on its outer surface that acts as a kind of enhanced fishing gaff. A gaff that hooks onto the surface of the heart, lung, kidney, and intestinal cells with several times greater binding affinity than the previous coronavirus versions. COVID-19 thereby anchors itself up against the human cell membrane, pulling itself close enough to eventually merge with and then disappear into the cellular interior, all in the span of about 10 minutes. Within 10 hours the viral genes have taken over and ‘eclipsed’ the normal human protein-synthesizing ability of the cell and have begun using it to generate a massive clutch of its own progeny. A ‘viral burst’ is produced that numbers in the thousands of identical self-copies. The host cell is left mortally injured as the new viral particles erupt forth into the tissue milieu to rapidly infect nearby cells, and other people, over and over again.

CK: Why has this one particular pandemic happened now?

KK: Because the time was right. And because the conditions were ripe. It is no secret that disease ecologists have been expecting some kind of dreadful respiratory pandemic for some time. There are potentially millions of different viruses and other pathogens out in the animal kingdom capable of inflicting similar or worse illnesses on humankind, and they are all just waiting in the wings. When humans encroach upon wildlife habitat, especially in poorer tropical countries, when they live crowded together in high-density metropolitan centres, when they are capable of daily, worldwide jetliner travel, and when, through automation and inactivity, they have become as physically deconditioned and somnolent as western society has generally become, and when this has been compounded by a ruinous surfeit of over-rich food, resource, and convenience…well – I’m surprised it took this long to happen. And this pandemic will not be the last of its kind, by any means.

CK: As a medical consultant and a molecular pharmacologist; how would you rank or assess the importance or seriousness of this outbreak in context to the wellbeing of an individual and of humankind collectively?

KK: It would not take an expert to say that this outbreak is serious. Very serious. At the time of this writing, nearly four and a half million people have been infected by COVID-19 worldwide, with nearly a third of a million dead, and a case fatality rate that, according to some sources, may range anywhere from as low as 2% to as high as 7%. While some proactive countries are beginning to stem or even stop the tide, the disease continues to skyrocket in others, even while some jurisdictions contemplate easing lockdown measures.

How sick you get depends upon your age and gender, your genetic susceptibility to the COVID-19 strain, any comorbidities that you may have (such as diabetes, heart or lung disease), the viral dose you have been inoculated with, the type of environment (or country) you are living in, and your personal lifestyle choices as they concern baseline health maintenance. Furthermore, I cannot underscore enough the importance of establishing good mental health & wellness, because this is the driving force behind all motivation and action.

Thus when you ask me about the wellbeing of an individual or of society at large, there is an underlying and much broader philosophical issue going on that does not involve the physical body. Here I am referring to the spiritual and psychological aspects of wellbeing in the context of COVID-19. To me, this pandemic can be thought of as a test, the most recent one that humankind has been presented with. And the underlying theme of this test is how we come to terms with death. Although we don’t often like to think or talk about it, being awash in a high-mortality pandemic invariably leads us to this rather glum and melancholy topic.

This pandemic has become so close and personal that it makes me wonder if I am destined to die of coronavirus. I might – but I am already scheduled to die, in all certainty. The only blessing is that I do not know how or when. Sometimes I think it’s about to happen when, driven to ungovernable extremes with a stopwatch, I sprint Sea Hills at Beacon Hill Park. That would be the more preferred and even halcyon method; among the daffodils, on the side of the hill. But the ever-present nearness of death, either through a pandemic, or other less spectacular means, can heighten our thirst to live. It can drive us to pure joy; through living, training, and trying harder. The prospect of our own end can stimulate us to a sense of delight as we celebrate the sweet fugacity of existence. Or not.

The COVID-19 pandemic brings to mind a branch of human evolutionary psychology called Terror Management Theory, which explores the various methods that we use in an attempt to manage the terror of our own impending deaths. Having worked as a cancer physician, I have had decades to ponder the theme of mortality, and the various ways we attempt to establish a detente with this inevitable contingency. Anthropologist Ernest Becker, in 1973, wrote: “the fear of death, the idea of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” 

CK: What is your opinion on what COVID-19 has taught us?

KK: In many ways, I think that the pandemic has brought us back to confront the basic roots of our humanity. And by this, I mean that connectionhuman connection – is the most fundamental of all human needs. I have observed that the threat of COVID-19 has eliminated a lot of unnecessary rushing to and fro. Society has become more focused on what is important in life. The streets have become quiet, the air clean. Out on my training runs, I see fathers, who would normally be at the office, jogging with their daughters, and mothers playing frisbee with their young sons at the park. I always stop to give them a thumbs up and an encouraging word. Our desire for meaningful connection is heightened by the COVID pandemic because it has brought us face-to-face with our own potentially immediate mortality. We begin to ask questions like ‘what is the purpose of life – what are the important things in life?’ 

Sigmund Freud postulated that much of life was about how our sexual energy dictates our mental processes and actions. Ernest Becker and Terror Management Theory, on the other hand, advance the notion that trying to escape the fear of death is the most strident human endeavor. But my personal observations, as a father, an athlete, a citizen, and a physician, are that it is our connections, the connections within ourselves, to those around us, and to the planet at large, that truly give meaning to our lives. When I feel strongly connected to myself and the world around me, my fear of death diminishes to near extinction. I see the COVID-19 pandemic as a test of connection, which forms the foundation of all human motivation, resource, resilience, and action.

CK: How does coronavirus compare to other infectious diseases in terms of its lethality?

KK: The current COVID-19 pandemic pales in comparison to something like The Black Death, for example. Starting around AD 1346, over a seven-year span, the Black Death was recorded to have killed as many as 200 million people, in agonizing ways, as it swept unchallenged across Asia, Europe, and North Africa. Yes, COVID-19 is frightening, but it is just the most recent and therefore well-advertised infliction, and thus has become a strident example of what is essentially a naturally recurring and even commonplace phenomenon.

The types of infectious agents that can be transmitted from animals to humans can include viruses, such as rabies, H1N1 swine flu, and COVID-19, but also other dreadful and equally virulent entities such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, and even something as horrifyingly fatal as a simple twisted molecule; a prion. Prions are misfolded proteins that, upon gaining ingress to the body, have the mysterious ability to project their misfolded shape onto other normal proteins in the brain. An irreversible, domino-type of a protein-folding cascade is thereby triggered which ends in a painfully slow and universally fatal neurodegenerative disease. An example of this would be “Mad Cow” disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which appeared in Canadian livestock in 2003 and for which, to prevent human spread, the Canadian authorities ordered the slaughter of 2,700 head of cattle. Some years previously, in the UK, 4 million cattle were sacrificed to contain an outbreak. The responsible prion has been shown to be zoonotically transmissible to humans through the consumption of contaminated meat products, with the resulting taint causing a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. This incurable process killed 177 people in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and 1990s and has caused widespread, recurrent terror since the first recorded cases by Hippocrates in the 5th century BC.

Therefore, it’s not a hard-sell that the coronavirus pandemic is associated in some way with a market where domestic animals as well as wildlife such as bats, birds, baby crocodiles, snakes, porcupines, beavers, and pangolins, among many others, are sold as food items. Moreover, the animals may appear healthy because the organisms they carry, which may be harmful to humans, are often a normal part of the animal’s flora, or microbiome. Such is the case with horseshoe bats, which serve as a natural reservoir for the coronavirus family of respiratory viruses.

CK: How do you feel about the timing of the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games and the domino effect the decision caused for other events?

KK: Of course, news of the Olympics being postponed has been a great disappointment, not only to the public but also the athletes who have been training so hard to pursue Olympic glory. However, the delay is completely 100% necessary to contain the pandemic. But my first taste of disappointment came with the cancellation of the 2020 World Athletics Indoor Championships, scheduled for March in Nanjing, China. I had been eagerly anticipating that contest, primarily because I wanted to see what the meteoric rise of Donovan Brazier would bring to the 800 metres. Then, suddenly, all of my own speaking engagements and the scientific conferences I customarily attend got cancelled, and I thought: wow, this pandemic is going big, worldwide. 

I have read that in ancient, classical times, even warring Greek states would make temporary peace to allow the Olympics to proceed smoothly, only to resume arms after the competition and celebrations were over. But the pandemic is not as negotiable as human warfare. It is in a class of its own – it is World War COVID – and it is an emerging system that moves as an insensate wave under its own power, with almost contemptuous disregard to frail human intervention.

CK: Aside from the commonly known social distancing and preventive measures to flatten the curve, what else can people do to stay active, continue to work and remain healthy?

KK: Basically, anything that will enhance and protect the immune system. And this includes the spiritual and mental component to wellbeing. This aspect of human existence is never talked about in any of the medical textbooks I have ever read, but there is a deep spiritual aspect to human health and wellbeing. Our bodies are made up of different populations of cells: liver, lung, bone, brain, skin, gut…and each of those tissue types has a resident population of stem cells. Those stem cells, which are responsible for repairing and regenerating our tissues, take their signals from our beliefs. We are being remodelled all the time by the mind and the way we think, even as we speak.

As an example, 17-years ago I was in a coma on life support in the intensive care unit. The part of my brain responsible for balance and equilibrium, the cerebellum, had been damaged so severely that when I revived, I could not stand up or walk. I kept falling over, such that the nurses had to tie me to a chair so that I would not sag sideways and fall to the floor like a half-filled sack. I had a lot of time to think, and thought to myself: “well, okay. Now, to compensate for this, I’m going to have to break the 800-metre world record in my age category, and clear all this up.”  I have not broken the 800-metre record yet, but, filled with gratitude, I’m continuing to work at it, and do stamina and speed workouts on the hills and at the track with spikes and a stopwatch. I write my times down in a training journal to ensure I make progress. True, my legs are sore and I am hungry all the time, but it is better than being tied to a chair in the hospital. And that is the power of the mind. Anything within reason is possible, based on our spiritual condition, which determines the way we think and forges the futures that we make for ourselves, as we move onward through life.

Other ancillary things that afford protection against COVID include educating ourselves on the routes of spread and the clinical features of the illness; dry cough, fever, muscle aches. Should we become symptomatic, or have had contact with someone who has, quarantine measures to contain the situation can be implemented, along with testing, if available, then tracing, and isolating of contacts. Good personal hygiene is important: sanitize hands and surfaces, as the virus dissolves upon contact with soap and water. We should continue with reasonable social distancing measures and avoid congested places and air conditioning systems, which increases exposure to aerosolized viral particles. 

Soon no doubt, driven partly because of commercial interests, we will have vaccines. But humankind will never be saved by potions or elixirs, these will only afford temporary relief, as they will be specific only to COVID-19. History has repeatedly shown us that we will have to anticipate a new outbreak of a different pathogen, and will need to have in place the mindset and the social and scientific apparatus to rapidly process and deal with these new challenges as they emerge. With all kindness, the next pandemic is just around the corner.

CK: Once the pandemic passes, we will likely have a new normal, perhaps not unlike the permanent changes since 9/11 with screening and customs inspections at airports. What are some of the behavioural changes that you think will be permanent going forward?

KK: When you talk about permanent behavioural change with respect to the human-animal, that is a tough nut to crack. We are primal. Just consider something as optional, foolish, and repetitive as war. We continually wage war, because as humans we are genetically programmed to forget pain, loss, and suffering. Humans can be selfish and self-centred to the extreme. Even now, people have become restless of lockdown and social distancing – we clamour for the old ways and can’t wait to get back to work. Money, which is the root of all evil, makes the world go around. The same impulses apply to me – I want my double-fudge hazelnut mocha from Starbucks today. So, rather than a behavioural change, I think a mental change is more relevant: to appreciate what we have, to love and support those around us, to be reasonable and generous of spirit with people and the planet, and to anticipate with poise, courage, and preparation the next viral wave, or any other challenge, that will be shortly merging. Do not expect a trouble-free life, it is our troubles that make us stronger.

CK: Any thoughts on the conspiracy theorists that are active today?

KK: Yes, I’ve thought about it, and have to pause and massage my temples. Bruised and battered by life, just like everyone else, I continually strive to maintain an ever-flexible open-mindedness and a hard-won tolerance. I have been ‘assaulted’ by all sorts of conspiratorial nonsense and sensationalized fantasy regarding the origins of COVID-19. I have to smile when some suggest that COVID-19 is an agent of bioterror that was purposefully and genetically engineered in a virology laboratory, and then escaped or was released by design. When we consider the ongoing miracle of evolution based upon natural selection and the vast diversity of life on the planet, nature itself has clearly proven to be more crafty, cunning, and imaginative than an entire world full of plotting human scientists.

CK: So, practicing healthy habits: eating well, engaging in vigorous physical exercise and being more sanitary and the flattening of the curve, can we breathe easier going forward?

KK: It is as you say. But breath is a precious and hard-won commodity that can be enjoyed only through responsible vigilance combined with the necessity of application – we have to work for it. This COVID-19 pandemic is a natural and not unusual phenomenon, and it certainly will not be the last of its kind. We will have to remain alert, and take personal responsibility for a balanced approach to our physical, spiritual, and mental wellbeing. “Est modus in rebus” wrote the Roman poet Horace, when he published his Satires in BC 35, a collection of poems on the secrets of human happiness: “there is a middle way in all things”.

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