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All living things

The tree of life

In 1837, Charles Darwin put forward a unifying theory for all cellular life on our planet. Expressed visually as The Tree of Life, it outlines the evolution of all living things and illustrates the common descent of life. In a huge thriving tree, only a tiny, tiny twig represents humans. The rest is made up from micro-organism like bacteria.

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Micro-organisms. The foundation of our biosphere


Micro-organisms may be too small to see but we must never underestimate their importance. They are the foundation of the biosphere, both from an evolutionary and an ecological perspective. They were the first organisms on earth and have been present for 3.7 billion years, 3 billion years ahead of plants and animals.

The diversity of the microbial world is both mysterious and spectacular. Some live at boiling temperatures, or higher, in hot springs and deep-sea thermal vents, others live at temperatures below freezing sea ice.

Billions of micro-organisms are present in the human (and all animal) digestive tracts, making digestion and the absorption of vitamins and amino acids possible. Without them, we could not exist. Plants too, rely on micro-organisms to provide nutrients for growth.

  • Number of microorganisms

    The number of microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil (1 × 109) is the same as the number of humans ...

Size of microorganisms

Sizes of microorganisms


What is a virus?

A virus is genetic material contained within an organic particle that invades a living cell, using that cell’s metabolism to produce new viral particles.

And while bacteria are living organisms, viruses are molecular parasites. They lack any form of energy and carbon metabolism and are unable to self-maintain or organize themselves. They depend completely on the metabolic machinery of host cells, not only for their reproduction but also for their evolution. In the absence of cells, there is no viral evolution. Viruses are evolved by the living cell they enter. So, by definition, are viruses dead?

Are viruses dead or alive

Viruses cannot be included in the tree of life because they do not share the same characteristics and properties of living cellular things.

The question of them being dead or alive, however, is a controversial one, not helped by our lack of scientific agreement about their complexities. Also, what is our definition of ‘life’? Are suspended animated states or miniscule metabolic activities still considered ‘life’? If viruses are not alive and cannot be included in the tree of life, it is ironic that they have had and continue to have such a massive impact on the evolution of life on earth.

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All viruses depend completely on cells for reproduction and evolution

Some properties of living things are absent from viruses.  Viruses lack any form of energy and carbon metabolism and are not able to self-maintain or organize themselves.  But there are also properties that viruses share with life.  They evolve, for instance. But as perfect molecular parasites, viruses depend completely on the metabolic machinery of cells, not only for their reproduction but also for their evolution. Thus, in the absence of cells, there is no viral evolution. Viruses neither replicate nor evolve, they are evolved by the cell they entered.  

If viruses are not alive and cannot be included in the tree of life, this does not simply imply that they have not had a significant role in the evolution of life on Earth. 

How many viruses are there on earth?

10 to the power of 31  =

10 to the power of 31 =

The total number of viruses is staggering. It is estimated that they outnumber stars by a factor of 10 million. They are found everywhere - from oceans to forests, inside us, on us and around us.

The Virosphere is a massive and largely unknown world. It is estimated that 800 million viruses attached to dust particles fall onto every square meter of The Earth’s surface every day. There are an estimated 5,000 viral genotypes in 200 litres of seawater alone and probably a million different viral genotypes in one kilogram of marine sediment. The one thing we do know for sure is that viruses are the most abundant, and arguably, the most important organisms on earth.


coexist with viruses

Viruses are extraordinarily picky about the cells they infect, and only a small fraction of the viruses that surround us pose any threat to humans. Perversely, viruses get no advantage from making people seriously ill. It is simply a by-product of the encounter.

Most of the time we co-exist quite amicably in a virus-filled world. In fact, our mass exposure to viruses over the course of human evolution has introduced a degree of retroviral immunity into our DNA sequences. So, viruses are playing a crucial role in evolution and may well have been key to the origins of life.

  • A human embryo at 45 days. Scientists have learned that a protein called Hemo, made by a fetus an...

Pandemic history

The ugly side of viruses

Rarely do we witness the ugly side of viruses, but there is no doubt they have caused some of the most dangerous diseases in history. The plague, smallpox, yellow fever, seasonal influenza and other contagions have all killed hundreds of millions of people around the world. However, there is one constant trend throughout the history of pandemics - the gradual reduction over the years in the mortality rate.

The ugly side of viruses

Worst epidemics in recent history

1967 Origin UGANDA
  Infected 590
  Deaths 478
Fatality 81%
1976 Origin CONGO
  Infected 33,687
  Deaths 14,693
Fatality 44%
1999 Origin MALAYSIA
  Infected 496
  Deaths 265
Fatality 53%
2002 Origin CHINA
  Infected 8,437
  Deaths 813
Fatality 10%
2003 Origin CHINA
  Infected 861
  Deaths 455
Fatality 53%
2012 Origin SAUDI ARABIA
  Infected 2,494
  Deaths 858
Fatality 35%
2013 Origin CHINA
  Infected 1,568
  Deaths 616
Fatality 39%
2009 Origin US & MEXICO
  Infected 1,000,000+
  Deaths 123K - 203K
Fatality 2.6
(per 100.000 people)
1920s - ... Origin D.R. CONGO
  Infected 38,000,000+
  Deaths 32,700,000
Fatality Untreated 100% Treated 2%
2019 Origin CHINA
  Infected 62,844,800+
  Deaths 1,465,100+
Fatality 0,6 to 1%

* Origins yet to be determinedLogo WHO
** These figures are as of Feb 5,2020 Source: WHO | Last updated: 12:30 GMT Feb 5,2020


  Start  End  Years  Deaths
Black death  1347 1352 5 75,000,000
Italian Plague  1623 1632 9 280,000
Great Plague of Seville  1647 1652 5 2,000,000
Great Plague of London  1665 1666 1 100,000
Great Plague of Marseille  1720 1722 2 100,000
First Asia Europe Cholera Pandemic  1816 1826 10 100,000
Second Asia Europe Cholera Pandemic  1829 1851 22 100,000
Russia Cholera Pandemic  1852 1860 8 1,000,000
Global Flu Pandemic  1889 1890 1 1,000,000
Sixth Cholera Pandemic  1899 1923 24 800,000
Encephalitis Lethargica Pandemic  1915 1926 11 1,500,000
Spanish Flu  1918 1920 2 40,000,000
Asian Flu  1957 1958 1 2,000,000
Hong Kong Flu  1968 1969 1 1,000,000
H1N1 Pandemic  2009 2010 1 203,000
Covid-19  2019 - -

* Number of Deaths on November 26 - 2020


Bett, B., Randolph, D. and McDermott, J. 2020. Africa's growing risk of diseases that spread from animals to people. In: Swinnen, J. and McDermott, J. (eds), COVID-19 and global food security. Washington, D.C.: IFPRI. pp. 124–128. https://hdl.handle.net/10568/108990


ORIGINAL Research (data) / concept / visualization by The MicrobeScope

David McCandless, Omid Kashan, Miriam Quick, Karl Webster, Dr Stephanie Starling

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, World Health Org, CIDRAP, studies


Zoonotic spillovers cause most infectious illnesses

Most new infectious illnesses enter the human population by jumping from animals to humans. This is known as zoonosis. Mammals and birds alone are thought to host about 1.6 million types of viruses, and only one percent of them have even been identified. Vector-borne diseases carried by insects such as mosquitos and ticks are also on the up thanks to global warming.

In the majority of animal to human zoonotic spillover, the virus is headed off by the human immune system, stops there and does not spread from person to person. But, when a virus is able to enter a host’s cells and replicate, an outbreak of a new human virus DOES happen. We then have the potential for a pandemic. COVID-19 proved that.

Important examples of recent epidemic zoonoses

Emerging zoonosis Primary animal host Amplifying animal host Geographicall impact Approximate dates
HIV-AIDs Monkey   Global with major burden in Africa Late 1970s to present
Ebola Bat ? Africa (Central, East, West) Various outbreaks
Nipah Bat Pig South East Asia  
SARS Bat Civetcat Origin in China to multiple other countries 2003
MERS Bat Camel Middle East and East Africa 2008 to present
Covid-19 Bat   Origin in China to Global Since 2019
Avian flu (H5N1) Bird Chicken E/SE Asia to Global 2005 to 2010
"Swine" flu (H1N1) Pig   Global 2009
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The novel coronavirus

COVID-19 is caused by SARS-CoV-2 and is now the seventh known coronavirus to infect humans. Of the seven, only MERS, SARS and COVID-19 have resulted in serious pandemic illnesses. The rest only manifested as mild respiratory illness like the common cold.
Contrary to myth, SARS CoV-2 was not created by man in a lab.

Flu graph



R02.5 - 3

Source, updated September 2020
logos who - jh

Reproduction number of the COVID-19 virus

COVID-19 is believed to more transmissible than similar coronaviruses. Although how much of this has to do with the lengthy incubation period before symptoms become apparent isn’t yet clear. COVD-19 is easily spread through droplets created by an infected person coughing and sneezing or from discharge from the nose.

A way of measuring a disease’s ability to spread is via an R (short for Reproduction) number. This is basically the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to (on average.) If the average R number in the population is greater than 1, the infection will spread exponentially. If it is less than 1, the infection will spread only slowly, and will eventually die out. Sars-CoV-2 has an R number estimated at 3, COVID-19 at 2.5, but compare this with Rubella and Smallpox at 6.0 and Measles at a phenomenal 16.0 to get a better picture.

Reproduction number of other viruses
Reproduction number

R0   0.8


R0   1.5


R0   2.0


R0   2.5
estimate up-to-date as of September 2020


R0   3.5


R0   4.5


R0   6.0


R0   6.0


R0   16.0

Incubation period and severeness of symptoms

Days after being infected
The number of days after being infected


The Incubation period is the time elapsed between exposure to apathogenic organism and when symptoms and signs are first apparent. In a typical infectious disease, the incubation period signifies the period taken by the multiplying organism to reach a threshold necessary to produce symptoms in the host.

ORIGINAL Research (data) / concept / visualization by Information is Beautiful

David McCandless, Omid Kashan, Miriam Quick, Karl Webster, Dr Stephanie Starling

Sources: Centers for Disease Control, World Health Org, CIDRAP, studies


In 1889, a flu pandemic known as the ‘Asiatic Flu’ or ‘Russian Flu’ killed over a million people worldwide in a single year. Widely believed to be caused by an influenza virus it was recognised as the last great pandemic of the 19th Century. Spreading quickly through rail, road and boat trade links, the Russian pandemic engulfed the Northern Hemisphere. But was this ‘flu’ or was it the start of a coronavirus pandemic?

Recent research eluded to the culprit being a coronavirus first isolated in the 1960s, that today causes nothing more than a common cold. In fact, the four coronaviruses responsible for between 20 and 30% of today’s colds are thought to have been deadly in their origins, sparking centuries old pandemics. After the SARS epidemic, virologists began comparing human and animal coronaviruses. Their research indicated that bovine coronavirus and human coronavirus OC43 had a most recent ancestor sometime around 1890. Speculation is that the bovine coronavirus strain spilt over to humans and caused the Russian Pandemic.


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As we continue to learn how to readjust our lifestyles and reduce our risk of contracting COVID-19, it is useful to assess where the real risks lie. Generally speaking, the higher the number of people congregated in a confined space without practical social distancing measures being observed, the higher the risk. This includes obvious scenarios such as nightclubs and sports arenas to more surprising venues like singing in church where infectious droplets can be projected much further.

Naturally, risk is reduced by wearing a face mask, maintaining social distancing and the frequent washing of hands.

COVID-19 Low risk
COVID-19 Medium risk
COVID-19 Low risk

Sources: Information Is Beautiful, New York Times, Reuters, NPR, SF Gate & Others.

Case fatality rates of COVID-19 by age

COVID-19 has a relatively low mortality rate, currently at 2%. Less than seasonal flu. Naturally, the older generation and people with underlying illnesses are at a significantly higher risk of fatality or of suffering from ‘long-term’ COVID symptoms. It’s hard to generalise as COVID-19 affects people in different ways.

But the majority of infected people will develop mild to moderate symptoms like fever, dry cough, fatigue and loss of taste and smell. About 80% of them will recover without needing hospital treatment.

Case fatality rates of COVID-19 by age

Epidemiological group of emergency response mechanism of new coronavirus pneumonia in Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiological characteristics of new coronavirus pneumoniaChinese Journal of Epidemiology, 2020,41 (2020-02-17 ).

Onder G, Rezza G, Brusaferro S. Case-Fatality Rate and Characteristics of Patients Dying in Relation to COVID-19 in ItalyJAMA. Published online March 23, 2020. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.4683.



Seriousness of symptoms

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Study of 3,372 deaths cases in UK & 21,551 deaths in Italy
Sources: Italian Portal of Epidemiology for public health, UK Office of National Statistics


Around 1 out of every 5 who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Although all age groups are at risk of contracting COVID-19, older persons and people of all ages with severe underlying illness are at a significantly higher risk of mortality and severe disease following infection.
Having these conditions does not mean you will die of the disease- they are risk factors.
Average age of victims in this analysis was 79 years of age.

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Underlying Conditions are: Active cancer, Atrial fibrillation, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Dementia, Diabetes, Heart disease, Hypertension, Liver disease (chronic), Renal failure (chronic), Stroke.

Study of 355 deaths from 16,925 confirmed cases in Italy Source: Italian Portal of Epidemiology for Public Health

ORIGINAL Research (data) / concept / visualization by https://informationisbeautiful.net. Created by David McCandless, Omid Kashan, Fabio Bergamaschi, Dr Stephanie Starling, Univers Labs, Tom Evans



COVID-19 EFFECT on Hospitalization and Death

Underlying diseases that are connected (although not exclusively) to lifestyle choices such as diabetes and heart failure, present the highest risk. Asthma and hypertension are associated with a higher risk of hospitalisation, but not of death.

The estimates for risk of death align with an NHS study1 that used similar methods in a smaller sample. Not all multiple medical conditions (comorbidities) were present at the time of admission to hospital, and some may have been caused by COVID-19.

Read more about the full methodology and see further discussion in the linked report.


The dark blue bars show higher or lower risk of hospitalization and death (using hazard ratios) for each comorbidity, controlling for age group, sex, and other comorbidities. For example, diabetics have a hazard ratio of 1.6 for hospitalization, which means that patients with diabetes are 60 percent more likely to be hospitalized compared to patients with the same age group, sex, and combination of comorbidities who don’t have diabetes. The dark blue lines indicate 95% confidence intervals, or the range that contains the true value with 95% certainty.

The data in this analysis were pooled from 45 health systems representing 470 hospitals that span 20 different states and cover 50 million active patients as of May 13, 2020.

1Williamson, E et al. OpenSAFELY: factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital deaths in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients. medRxiv. May 6, 2020. DOI: 10.1101/2020.05.06.20092999


Putting Mortality rate of Covid-19 in perspective

Fear of the unknown throws the human brain into overdrive. Our perception of COVID-19 as an apocalyptic killer disease isn’t helped by our lack of knowledge or the non-stop images, discussions and hypotheses we see on our TV and computer screens. We are preoccupied with the threat of the disease. If we get infected, will we end up in hospital, on a ventilator or worse?

We seem to have conveniently forgotten that it’s not COVID-19, but preventable diseases like heart disease and high blood pressure that will kill most of us. But that’s longer term, less dramatic and less newsworthy.

Let’s not underestimate the dangers of COVID-19, but let’s keep it in perspective and not let worrying about the virus control our entire lives.

Putting Mortality rate of Covid-19 in perspective

Global Burden of Disease Collaborative Network. Global Burden of Disease Study 2017 (GBD 2017) Results. Seattle, United States: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), 2018.