Friday, May 22, 2020

More Good News from the NIH

I am now in the habit of regularly reading Dr. Francis Collins’ blog at Most of the latest information about potential vaccines, clinical trials, and COVID-19 therapies can be found here before they reach mainstream media. Dr. Collins (author of The Language of God) is a brilliant scientific mind, the director of the National Institute of Health, and a humble follower of Jesus Christ. His latest blog gives us more great news about potential therapies for COVID-19. You can read the blog yourself (as it is not overly technical) and I will also provide a summary here.

The good news is there in the first paragraph: we now know that nearly everyone who recovers from COVID-19 produces antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. This is the virus that causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. This suggests that, at least for a period of time – perhaps six months to several years, people exposed to SARS-CoV-2 will be protected from getting COVID-19 again. It is also quite possible that this protection, or immunity, could be transferred to other individuals who have not yet been exposed to the virus. Canadian Blood Services may already be storing tubes of blood for testing to see who has these antibodies in their blood.[1] Such blood samples would be valuable in identifying plasma that could be transferred to others to effectively block the replication of the virus in the cells of those exposed to the virus. As Collins' blog also suggests, the antibodies in this plasma may also be an effective therapy for those in an active COVID-19 disease state.

The article goes into some technical details about the various forms which these antibodies take and gives credit to those involved in this important work. The researchers come from all over the world including Beijing, Europe, and the United States. It is a good example of a unified research and development process. I really appreciate good news about actual potential therapies rather than speculation on drugs that may or may not work against the virus. I also really appreciate that these scientists put aside political quarrelling for the sake of all humanity. I encourage us all to stay informed, continue to use our intellects, and stay positive in the search for a conclusion to this pandemic.

[1] Personal communication from an un-named source at my local blood donor clinic.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

How Does One Say Welcome Through a Mask?

Most of us are getting used to smiling really hard to enhance the mirth or joy in our eyes. Without this, will anyone out in the public know that we are smiling behind our mask? You know the feeling: you have just stepped into the wrong aisle, from the wrong lane, heading in the wrong direction, down a supermarket throughway and you want to give that sheepish smile that says, “Oops, I will do better next time but right now I just need to reach that jar of bread yeast. Heh, heh, heh, smiley, smiley, smile.” We wish an emoji would pop up over our head to express our emotion. Alas, that only happens in cartoons and virtual reality. But here in the real world, we are not so fortunate. 

I thought about this as I read the news today and saw pictures of restaurants and retailers with signs that read, “Welcome Back – We Are Open” with owners standing at their doors smiling over masks. Yes, we know we are welcome, but we would be much more at ease if there was now no need for that black “bandit” mask that we have all been wearing for the last while (or should I wear the camo mask today?). Which brings me to a point about the re-opening of church buildings. Larry Osborne at North Coast Training Centre has some great insights into what will be necessary for the successful re-opening of our worship services. Most leaders, to this point, have focussed on the physical necessities of masks, hand sanitizers, touchless services, no consumables, and the challenge of children’s ministries. Osborne emphasises what it will take to have a quality worship service that meets or exceeds the quality of online services without totally exhausting pastors, tech-teams, and volunteers. In my mind, it created some questions worth considering. What does it mean to have a quality worship service? Is singing through a mask, while socially distanced necessarily a better worship experience than an online worship service? How many people will we be able to invite into our auditoriums? What about families with small children? Who will be comfortable returning to an enclosed space with central heating and many touch-points? Will my welcoming smile be noticed at the door or will I need to wear a t-shirt that says, “I am smiling under this mask”?

I think Larry Osborne is asking the right questions and perhaps foreseeing the appropriate responses. He suggests churches consider returning to large indoor spaces at a time similar to when people start to return to large outdoor sports arenas. The science of infection relies upon the concept of “Exposure to virus” X “Time” = “Infection”[1] So, indoor facilities pose greater risk than outdoor (because in the outdoors, wind will disperse viral particles in biological droplets faster and make them more dilute than in indoor spaces - even this may not hold up to some of the most recent research). But, time together in a church service may be shorter and less active than time spent cheering for your favourite sports team with a much larger crowd. These are the considerations which must go into decisions about when to open zoos, sports facilities, gyms, and places of worship. Do we really want to get ourselves into a situation where we book a time when we are allowed to go to a worship service in a building, after donning mask and gloves, and carrying around a bottle of spray disinfectant? It may be suitable to limit attendance and booking times at the Zoo, but what would such limitations say to the general public wishing to attend a church service? Would we create member only services? Visitor only services? Services with singing and services without singing? Services where seniors can attend and non-seniors services? Children-welcome and children-not-welcome services? Larry Osborne has reminded us that there are some big questions yet to ask. Most of them have no credible answer in the present context. 

Francis Collins (Head of the NIH in the USA) has said that we might possibly have a vaccine by the end of the year. He and Timothy Keller have also commented on the disparities that are present in our medical systems that create have and have-not cultures.[2] Any re-openings and access to vital medications and vaccines must take into consideration Jesus’ words about “the least of these.” All will need equal access.

So, “to [open] or not to [open]. That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to” remain closed or to re-open. That is one of the questions of the Kingdom of God in which we live and to which we look forward. Until we answer this question, keep smiling. The smile lines increasing with age will only serve to emphasise your smiling eyes.

[1] Erin Bromage, “The Risks – Know Them – Avoid Them,” Dr. Bromage joined the Faculty of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in 2007 where he teaches courses in Immunology and Infectious disease, including a course this semester on the Ecology of Infectious Disease which focused on the emerging SARS-CoV2 outbreak in China,

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Collins and Keller: Where is God in a Pandemic?

I am happy to have this blog where I can direct our attention to some of the valuable resources available to us at this time. One such resource is a recent conversation between Dr. Timothy Keller and Dr. Francis Collins moderated by Jim Stump from the BioLogos organization. I can give you a couple of hints regarding the way to watch this video. First, the main content begins at approximately 9:00 minutes into the YouTube recording and secondly, I have listed a few topics within the video. That way, as a question is asked, you will have an opportunity to take greater notice of the wisdom shared by these two phenomenal leaders. Some of the topics covered include:

·       Disparity in online learning
·       Spiritual depletion in busy times and the need to take time for spiritual refreshment
·       Adventures in rapid scientific development
·       The Church’s response to the pandemic
·       Innovation in the church – the replanting of local churches
·       Vaccines – when will we have one and who will accept it?
·       Medicine as God working rationally in his creation
·       Jesus recommending and using medicine
·       Theology of suffering
·       Disparity in healthcare resources
·       Affluent churches helping immigrant communities
·       Image of God and compassion toward all who are made in the image of God – the value of every human life
·       Hard utilitarianism does not hold sway in the Kingdom of God – the calculus of saving lives
·       Prayer and the work of God through those who are made in the image of God
·       How to use our time on earth to the greatest benefit
·       Asking for wisdom from God

That is a long list of relevant topics for each of us. I pray that you might find the time to be spiritually refreshed by these two leaders in God’s Kingdom. Jim Stump is great at asking the right questions and drawing out the best from each of his guests. May we be praying for the work of all who serve God in pandemic times. May God refresh his spiritual leaders in the work of the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Of Bees and Workers

Canadian and American culture tends toward “doing” on the “doing/being continuum.” When things get tough, the tough get going. When a crisis comes along and we need to pivot, we take it in stride and work a little harder to accomplish the things that must be done, and the objectives we want to accomplish. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this and it has served our culture well over the last many years.

Of course, there is another side to this, and we have all become aware of what happens when the Lord “makes us lie down in green pastures.” In those times when we are forced to isolate, forced to stop the busy commute, forced to work and play in the same location, some of us have amped up the frenetic pace. I know many who must rise to the challenge of working a full-time job from home, learn the new platforms that allow this work, learn how to use the tools sent home by teachers to help the children learn and then communicate with the teacher, find new ways to keep in touch with family and friends, say yes or no to another drive-by birthday celebration, figure out how to keep a three-year-old occupied all day so that both parents can work from two make-shift home offices, keep the wi-fi network working at its peak to support two Zoom calls, a Disney movie, and two smart-phones so that the bandwidth doesn't freeze up one of the apps and make us look like an idiot on the Zoom call with the boss. (I mean literally looking like an idiot with our features frozen in some odd expression and our hair sticking out from our slouch cap.) 

But back to the Lord “making us lie down in green pastures,” there are days when we must rest. There are days when we cannot be as productive as we want to be. There are days when we fear that we will fall behind the flock of sheep and be left lying in yesterday’s green pastures. There are days when we are anxious that others might see us as not pulling our weight and that we might just miss that promotion or, in fact, be one of the first to be laid-off. There are days when we are forced to lie down in the green pasture of our home while the three-year-old bounces on our chest.

In a recent blog, Carson Pue relates a story of a bee in a greenhouse that frenetically bashes against the glass ceiling trying to find a way out. The bee is a worker bee. The bee works hard at getting out of the situation in which it finds itself. Despite the open door and vent, the poor little thing just keeps smashing against the glass until it is too exhausted to fly and must crawl along the frame of the vent. It is a revealing picture of our own levels of fatigue. Carson Pue goes on to speak of what we can do in these times of stress and the entire article is very helpful. Yet, I could not help but think that sometimes I just need to be the bee. There is a time for simply being rather than doing. It was not until the bee reached a point of simply being on the greenhouse frame that the solution to its plight arose. Then it was able to crawl beyond the inner frame, to the third dimension of the greenhouse, and find its way beyond the glass.

Where am I today? Am I being or doing? Am I seeking to be all I can be? Am I seeking to do all I can do? There is a time for both being and doing. Where am I, where are you, in the tension?

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Saturn and Jupiter

As I wiped the sleep from my eyes a little before sunrise this morning, I gazed out my south-facing window and saw two bright objects in the sky. There was blazing beauty to each of them and together they took my breath away. I thought one was Sirius, until I did my research and realized I was looking at the shining glory of Saturn on the left and Jupiter on the right.[1] Such splendour, such sublime majesty in these two planets.

I thought about our own planet in crisis with a virus running amok across the globe. I thought about the grandeur and sterility of each of Saturn and Jupiter. As far as we know, there are no viruses, no bacteria, and no life on these planets. There are storms, of epic proportion, there is dust, there are rocks, there are gases, both volatile and inert, there is sunlight and shadow. All of this has been going on in one form or another for decades, centuries, and millennia. There is a timeless purity to what is going on with these two planets. Processes happen and storms come and go[2] and yet these planets are changeless. There is no global warming caused by the impact of one or another species, there are no pandemics, and no wars.

God has protected these planets from the impact of all such catastrophes and given them over to their own changes and movements. These planets are remarkably ordered by the principles of physics, chemistry, and gravity. Yet, if you were to watch them from a close vantage point, they might appear chaotic and out of control. 

Today, as I watch them from afar, I am reminded that there are places of pristine purity, protected by the huge gulf between humans and these holy places. We have not yet sullied the stars. Annie Dillard says that we have indeed damaged many of the holy places here on earth.

“It is difficult to undo our own damage, and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave. It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree.”
― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper Perennial, 2013. 

Yet, Saturn and Jupiter give us hope of places not yet seen that are still holy, pure, and unsullied. Let us cling to the hope of one day seeing the holy places of God.

[1] Don’t worry, they are still social distancing. They only look like they are close to each other from this angle.
[2] Some storms have persisted for hundreds of years.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Understanding Testing

The world of COVID-19 testing and our understanding of the virus has caused many of us to read science and health articles laden with new terminology that may be challenging to understand. One of the areas of knowledge that is difficult to understand is COVID-19 testing. Let’s take a closer look at some of the work presently being done.

When it comes to viruses and the diseases they cause, there are two basic types of testing. One, testing to see if the person being tested has virus in their system; and two, testing to see if the person has developed antibodies against the virus. We will look at each in turn with regard to the COVID-19 disease and the SARS-CoV-2 virus[1] which causes the disease.[2]

Virus testing in this first case, is done almost exclusively by reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). This is the recommended initial test to see if a person is carrying the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the deep parts of the nasal passages.[3] This test detects the rna of the actual virus by transcribing its rna into DNA and amplifying the DNA (making more of the DNA). This is a highly sensitive test and is capable of detecting as few as one virus particle. The test relies on the concept that if a virus particle is detected deep in the sinus cavity of the patient, the patient’s body is likely manufacturing the virus particles in the cells of their respiratory system[4] and shedding them out into the world around them through moisture in their breath.[5] This article will not assess the tests but rather describe the tests (some of the readers of this article may already be seeing the pros and cons of this testing method). Spartan Bioscience in Ottawa has just received approval to sell their rapid detection kit to the Canadian market.[6] It is exciting to see this new made-in-Canada solution to testing for SARS-CoV-2.

In the second type of testing, the clinicians initiating the test are looking for antibodies against the virus. Normally, when our bodies are introduced to a new virus in our cells, our immune system goes through a system of activation and biochemical cascades which result in the production of antibodies against the novel virus.[7] These antibodies are part of a healthy person’s biological response to a virus and the beginnings of how we fight off this new challenge to the integrity of our cells. We want our cells to exclusively make proteins for our own use and we do not want them making more viral rna or viral proteins. Therefore, our immune system must initiate its own biological warfare against the invading army of viruses. Antibody testing relies upon this ability of the body to make antibodies against a foreign particle in our system. If our body has experienced the new virus and has had sufficient time to mount a response, there will be antibodies in our blood to indicate that this has happened. Antibodies such as this may last for a matter of months or many years. Thus, one can test for specific antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 while the person is in an active COVID-19 disease state or even after they have recovered. This type of testing may be invaluable in determining who has survived the disease and may possibly be a source of antibodies that could potentially be transferred to another person to give them immunity to the disease.[8]

This second type of testing is more of a classical immunological test. A molecule capable of binding to the antibody, something that bears a resemblance to the binding portion of the viral particle, is bound onto a substrate (perhaps a paper inside a testing cassette) and then a blood sample is placed in contact with the detection molecule. After an appropriate wash, to cleanse the cassette of any unbound particles, the one performing the test looks for evidence of bound antibodies. This is most often a colour change on the substrate (think of how an early pregnancy detection stick works) to indicate the presence of the antibody against the virus. (Again, there are pros and cons of such a testing regime, but for now, we will forgo any assessments.) Tests such as this are in development in Canada as well. The test manufactured by BTNX is approved for sale in the US and UK but is not yet approved for the Canadian market.[9] This type of testing will be critical to further research and for such important tasks as testing donor blood at Canadian Blood Services. We can applaud such active and rapid research into both of these areas of testing.

Post a comment or send an email if this article has created further questions. I will do my best to research the questions and provide answers.

[1] The virus itself is a simple little biological entity, less alive and more machine-like. It consists of only 30,000 base-pairs of rna and just a few proteins. Perhaps I will write more on that later.
[2] This virus is also sometimes referred to as “the coronavirus” (but of course it is simply one of many coronaviruses) or the 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.
[3] "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020-03-21. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
[4] For that is what virus particles do, they get inside a host cell and use the cell’s machinery to make more virus particles.
[5] Notice I avoided saying, “by speaking moistly.” This is out of respect for our Prime Minister and the great job he is doing each day keeping the Canadian public informed. It is so easy to stumble over one’s words in such settings. We all need to give him a break.
[6] “Everyone wants them: Rapid COVID-19 test kits made in Canada approved for use,” CBC News, 2020-04-13,
[7] People who are immune-compromised for various reasons may not be fully capable of mounting such an immune response against the virus.
[8] I am intentionally using a number of conditional words and clauses here. The research has not yet shown whether or not it might be possible to transfer immunity via this method. But, it is a hopeful plan.
[9] “Health Canada says rapid blood test for COVID-19 remains under review,” CBC News, 2020-04-12,

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Science and Faith in Pandemic Times

Dr. Francis Collins has been a hero of mine since my days in the Molecular Diagnostic Lab at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. In those days he was the lead investigator on the Human Genome Project as everyone raced to be the first to map the approximately three billion base-pairs of the human genome. Since July of 2008 Dr. Collins has served as the director of the National Institutes of Health, a position to which he was appointed by President Barack Obama and selected again by President Donald Trump. It is a position he holds to this day. The NIH is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for biomedical and public health research in the United States and Dr. Collins’ role is to oversee all projects and funding from the US government.

On April 6, 2020, Biologos interviewed Francis Collins regarding the latest research into the novel corona virus that is causing the disease known as COVID-19. Christianity Today reporters were sitting in on the interview and will likely write about this conversation in the days and weeks to come. Dr. Francis Collins is a gracious and humble follower of Jesus who is overseeing all of the research into the virus, vaccines, antibodies against the virus, and many other projects in the US. The interview reveals that many Christians do indeed integrate faith and science. To quote Mark Noll, "There is hope for the evangelical mind" (The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 1994). Don't miss the end of the interview where Dr. Collins reveals the things for which he is praying right now. Here is the link to the recorded conversation.