Title text: The list includes polio, Guinea worm, and this one particular enterovirus strain that they've been tracking out of spite after it went around the lab a few years ago.
The endangered species list (also known as the IUCN Red List) is a system for categorizing species based on "level of extinction". This list is primarily focused on macroscopic organisms such as animals and plants, as it is these organisms whose extinction is easiest to quantify, and on which most conservation efforts focus. Generally, it is a serious concern when a species is listed on the endangered species list, as this indicates its extinction could be at hand. Ponytail, Cueball, and Megan in this comic are scientists who maintain an endangered species list of microscopic pathogens. People generally want harmful pathogens and parasites to go extinct, unlike harmless plants and animals, so each species added to the pathogen endangered species list is a cause for celebration rather than concern, and the characters in the comic indulge in this celebration by sarcastically pretending to be upset about the potential for pathogen extinction, while in reality being excited about the possibility.
The title text mentions some of the species on the list, including polio and Guinea worm disease - diseases that have historically sickened and killed many people but are currently being eradicated due to worldwide efforts - the former, famously, through vaccination, and the latter through education and prevention techniques. As their eradication proceeds, they become more and more endangered of extinction, and thus earn their place on the list. The title also mentions a much less important pathogen, namely a certain strain of an enterovirus, also known as a stomach flu, which unlike polio and guinea worm is likely only to cause temporary discomfort, not death or long-term disability, in infected people. However, the strain in question infected every member of the lab maintaining the list, and as a result of their personal negative experience with it, and the spiteful feelings that resulted from that experience, the characters will celebrate its extinction as much as that of polio, and have accordingly added it to the list.
Randall was most likely inspired by this article about different influenza strains. Influenza causes the yearly flu, which infects 5–15% of the global population annually and causes 3-5 million severe cases worldwide.
The bitter irony here is that much recent scholarship has described links between parasite biodiversity and ecosystem-wide, indeed planet-wide, biodiversity. In a few cases, if preserving and expanding biodiversity are seen as good things, then preserving and expanding biodiversity of parasites is a good thing, the one not being possible without the other. Parasites and disease agents, arguably, are classes of predators, and their removal can help establish a superpredator, the actions of which can catastrophically drive down biodiversity. Humans, released from predation by a large percentage of formerly-effective microbial predators, through the introduction of penicillin and other antibiotics plus other elements of 'heroic medicine', sanitation, etc., have arguably become such a superpredator, and one that is mediating a loss of global biodiversity that may become the largest single species-extinction event in the history of planet Earth.
There also seems to be some evidence that infections with influenza viruses increase the chance of a heart attack. For instance regular flu shots reduce the risk of heart attacks. Thus the fact that we are "heartbroken" when B/Yamagata goes extinct could be sarcastic since we might suffer less from broken hearts.
- [Ponytail stands facing Cueball and Megan in front of a poster board.]
- [Ponytail is pointing a stick to the board reading "Current List" with bullet points beneath.]
- [The first bullet reads Influenza B/Yamagata.]
- [Four further bullet points follow, which are left indistinct.]
- Ponytail: Influenza's genetic diversity has declined during the pandemic, and the B/Yamagata lineage is at risk of extinction.
- Ponytail: Which would be such a shame.
- Megan: Yeah, I'm sooooooo worried about it.
- Cueball: We'd be just heartbroken!
- [Caption below the panel]:
- When a pathogen that scientists really don't like is close to disappearing, it gets added to the sarcastic endangered species list.
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