2287: Pathogen Resistance

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Pathogen Resistance
We're not trapped in here with the coronavirus. The coronavirus is trapped in here with us.
Title text: We're not trapped in here with the coronavirus. The coronavirus is trapped in here with us.


This comic is the 13th comic in a row in a series of comics related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than expressing humanity's fears and pessimism about the pandemic, this strip anthropomorphizes some of the pathogens which afflict humanity and presents their fears and pessimism about possibly going extinct. This serves as a roundabout way of expressing hope and wonder at the ingenuity and tenacity of humans in the face of diseases past (with water sanitation, mosquito netting, and condoms) and present (with the power of social distancing and Gloria Gaynor's hit song I Will Survive). Gaynor recorded a video of herself washing her hands for 20 seconds (the recommended length of time to wash hands for optimal cleanliness) to the background of her hit song.

The three pathogens presented are a virus (a bacteriophage), a small colony of a coccus-shaped bacterium (such as Streptococcus), and a protozoon (a caricature of a ciliate). Bacteriophages do not infect human cells (as the name suggests, they only infect bacteria), and have been studied for use as "phage therapy" for humans, especially in dealing with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections (which is usually what people mean when they talk about "resistance" in the context of pathogens); however, they are iconic, instantly-recognizable viruses, and some have been found to collude with bacteria in forming certain antibiotic-resistant biofilms. Only one kind of ciliate is known to cause human disease; however, ciliates are iconic for protozoa just as bacteriophages are for viruses (see, for example, Gary Larson's now-venerable The Far Side cartoons). The ciliate may be a 'stand-in' for protozoa that cause widespread and dangerous human diseases, such as malaria. The drawing is wildly out of scale; a protozoon is larger than a bacterium, which in turn is much larger than a virus.

"The scariest thing in the universe" to these microbes is the human immune system, represented in the second panel and later by antibodies (Y-shaped drawings) and anthropomorphized macrophages (actual macrophages do not have glaring angry eyes[citation needed]). When a T cell encounters an unfamiliar molecule in the body, such as the surface proteins of SARS-CoV-2, it will search for a B cell that produces a matching antibody. If and when it finds such a B cell, it will command the B cell to rapidly multiply and mass-produce antibodies. Those antibodies will then bind to any antigens they contact, which may impede the antigen (as shown by the tagged protozoon in panel 2 lagging behind its siblings) and will definitely mark them for destruction by macrophages, which engulf ("HUUGGG") and digest antibody-tagged objects they encounter. T cells can also be described as hugging cells, but a hug from a T cell is used to activate other processes, while a hug from a macrophage is a precursor to digestion. White blood cells are quite persistent once they have detected an antigen, even chasing them over many cell lengths in what must be a terrifying experience for the antigen being chased.

The comic humorously considers pasta as an essential part of humans' fight against coronavirus. Pasta is an example of a dried food that can last a long time, if the orders to stay indoors continue, and was one of many products bought in mass quantities by shoppers "panic-buying" at the onset of lockdowns. Pasta is a popular dish in Italy, which is experiencing particular difficulties with COVID-19, but not every culture consumes or likes pasta. In addition, the Gaynor vid was initially shared via soundpasta.com among other services, and "pasta" is sometimes used to refer to sharing over the internet via cut-and-paste.

The colony of cocci protests that it shouldn't be possible for humans to evolve "pathogen resistance" in the short period of months since the breakout of COVID-19, when humans require over a decade to reach sexual maturity, and in modern times often wait at least two decades before having children. Humans develop immunity to some diseases after being infected, as some B cells become memory cells and are stored for quick re-activation in the case of a later infection, but this is not very effective against viruses which mutate rapidly, such as influenza and the common cold (which is sometimes caused by coronaviruses, although not SARS-CoV-2). Bacteria and viruses, on the other hand, reproduce in a matter of minutes, so that there may be hundreds of generations per day (comparable to the number of generations that have passed for humanity since the beginnings of agriculture), each of which presents opportunities to evolve new antigens that are not recognized by any antibodies present in the body or to evolve resistance to whatever antibiotic drugs the host might be using. However, as the bacteriophage explains, humans generally do not become resistant against pathogens by genetic drift (although there are researchers who are seeking to identify genes that encode resistances to various diseases and then propagate them to other humans through gene editing, as in the He Jiankui affair). Instead, humans "evolve" pathogen resistance through behavioral changes. The behaviors presented in this comic strip include:

  • Municipal water supplies, which are filtered and treated to prevent the spread of waterborne diseases, like cholera and dysentery.
  • Mosquito netting over beds, and also anti-insect poisoning, to prevent the spread of vector-borne diseases, like malaria.
  • Condoms (described as plastic in the comic, but more commonly latex rubber in real life), to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases, such as AIDS and syphilis.
  • Social or physical distancing, hand-washing, storable food, and electronic communications, to prevent the spread of diseases through casual contact, like COVID-19.

These behaviors do not come from our genomes, passed along through reproduction, but from our brains, passed along by communication. (This is meme evolution, the spread of ideas, where the mind selects what of the idea to pass along. Because of this memes can evolve spontaneously and unpredictably.) Some of the language of epidemiology is also used in discussion of communication, most notably "going viral" -- in this case, information is going viral to prevent viruses from going viral.

The title text reverts to the point of view of humans and references a famous line from the graphic novel Watchmen, where the vigilante Rorschach, whilst in prison and surrounded by enemies who want to kill him, proclaims: "I'm not locked up in here with YOU. You're locked up in here with ME." This presents an alternate perspective on quarantine and isolation that some may find more bearable: rather than passively hiding indoors in fear of the virus, we are taking action to fragment the virus population so that our immune systems (and medical intervention, in more serious cases) can defeat it in detail.

This was the at least first comic featuring pathogens as characters. The (at least) second is 2306: Common Cold.


[A small colony of coccus bacteria, a bacteriophage, and a protozoon, with an eye, are floating together.]
Bacteriophage: I'm worried about humans developing resistance to us.
Bacteriophage: Using pasta.
[In a half height panel we see two macrophages, each with an eye, and lots of Y-shaped antibodies chasing three protozoa, also with one eye each. One protozoon is already covered in antibodies and seems to have fallen over. Above the panel is the text that the bacteriophage is narrating.]
Bacteriophage (narrating): The human immune system is a nightmare.
Bacteriophage (narrating): It's the worst.
Bacteriophage (narrating): It's the scariest thing in the universe.
Macrophage: Who wants a Huuggg
Antibody-covered protozoon: Nooo!
[Close-up on bacteriophage]
Bacteriophage: We can only survive by staying ahead of it. Keep jumping from person to person, keep mutating and evolving.
Bacteriophage: But now humans are adapting too fast.
[Water pipes. A mosquito net with a bed under it. An unopened condom package.]
Bacteriophage (narrating): We spread through their water. They built pipes.
Bacteriophage (narrating): We used mosquitoes. They put out nets and poison everywhere.
Bacteriophage (narrating): We spread through sex, and suddenly they all had these plastic things.
[Depictions of seven coronavirus with spikes, one very large, one large, two small and three tiny. They are above a picture of Hairbun and Cueball shaking hands, while exhaling a cloud and tiny droplets spraying all over from both their clouds from exhaling.]
Bacteriophage (narrating): This time, we really thought we had them.
Bacteriophage (narrating): One of us got good at transmission through everyday contact.
[A row of four sets of human lungs and their trachea is shown. The first set of lungs has just one black dot in the left and a few black dots in the right lung. The second has the bottom right lung covered in black, and the left lung has a bit black on either side and still some black dots in the middle. The third has most of each lung covered in black, except maybe a quarter of each lungs top. The fourth set of lungs are completely filled with black. Below them is a graph showing exponential growth with an X-axis with 17 equidistant ticks and to the right a Y-axis with eight equidistant ticks. This time the narrating is indicated to come from off-panel left with a speech line, and so are the two answers, coming from the off-panel right. It is like if the speakers are looking at this chart from off-panel.]
Bacteriophage (off-panel left): It was great. We were tearing through lungs, spreading like wildfire.
Voice (off-panel right): Hooray!
Voice 2 (off-panel right): I hate lungs.
[Close-up of bacteriophage "head".]
Bacteriophage: Then, all of a sudden, humans everywhere just...stopped. They stopped working, stopped seeing friends.
[Megan is sitting on a couch with a remote control in her hand, watching a flat screen TV. Cueball is at a sink with a mirror, washing his hands under hot water indicated by heat lines coming up from his hands. They are facing away from each other. Again speech is come from off-panel left and right with speech lines]
Voice (off-panel left): What are they doing?
Bacteriophage (off-panel right): Nothing!
Bacteriophage (off-panel right): They're just sitting there in their houses washing their hands.
[Cueball stands in an otherwise empty room He is surrounded by falling droplets, many of which are now lying on the floor around his feet. Among the droplets is a coronavirus that shouts out.]
Bacteriophage (narrating): Suddenly humans became dead ends. We tried to jump from one to the next, but there's no one to jump to.
Coronavirus: Help!
Bacteriophage (narrating): We can't escape.
[Three large Coronaviruses and several smaller ones are encroached on by at least four macrophages, one showing a large eye, surrounding them as well as streams of Y-shaped antibodies mowing in towards the viruses. A rectangular panel at the top, is placed over the top edge of the panel. The narrating text is inside this panel:]
Bacteriophage (narrating): We're trapped in there with those ghastly immune systems.
Antibodies: It's huug tiiiiime
Macrophage top left: Come here for a huuug
Macrophage bottom left: Huuuuugs
[A slim panel, with text above and below the panel with narration. In the panel there are two larger coronaviruses covered in antibodies and attacked directly by macrophages. Smaller coronavirus are shown covered in antibodies as well. Some of the macrophages are actively devouring viruses. While others already contain broken-down remnants of a coronavirus. Most of the macrophages has an eye.]
Bacteriophage (narrating): Even if we win a fight, there's nowhere to go.
Macrophage a the top: Huuuuuuuggss
Macrophage at the bottom: Huuugs
Bacteriophage (narrating): By staying inside, humans have become resistant.
[Back to the discussion between the coccus, the bacteriophage and the protozoon with eye.]
Coccus bacteria: How could they evolve that fast? Humans take decades to reproduce!
Bacteriophage: It's not evolution. It's something with their brains.
Protozoon: I wondered what those were for!
[Bacteriophage pointing with a leg to Cueball and Megan who are looking at their phones; Megan and Cueball are then walking to the right; Megan and Cueball are shown at separate sinks with mirrors washing their hands.]
Bacteriophage: Humans started looking at their phones, talking, writing words, and making signs. A human named "Gloria Gaynor" filmed herself singing at her bathroom sink.
Bacteriophage: And then they bought lots of pasta.
Bacteriophage: Then, around the world, they all went home and started washing their hands.
[Bacteriophage and protozoon with eye.]
Bacteriophage: They saw what we were doing and changed their behavior to stop us.
Protozoon: Brains are the worst.
[Coccus, bacteriophage and protozoon with eye.]
Coccus bacteria: It's not over, right? They can't sustain this. They must be bored and tired.
Coccus bacteria: Will they give up?
Bacteriophage: I don't know. They seem determined to protect each other.
[Coccus, bacteriophage and protozoon with eye.]
Bacteriophage: And
Bacteriophage: They have a lot of pasta.


  • The title text originally contained a typo in the form of a double negative "We're not not trapped..." This has since been corrected.
  • In the panel on the bottom left, the representation of the virus seems to be incompletely drawn, its head not showing any triangulation.
  • This comic was released on Monday. Due to a technical issue with the April Fools' comic, this comic stayed up as the current comic until Friday instead of the usual Wednesday.

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Note that the title text says "not not" -- meaning we're both trapped in here together John.Adriaan (talk) 04:38, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

Randall fixed that. That's right, Jacky720 just signed this (talk | contribs) 16:38, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

Do bacteriophages "afflict" humanity? To my knowledge, they only infect bacteria and are even considered a possible future alternative to antibiotics by some. What is up with them being represented here? 09:12, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

Yeah, bacteriophage is just wrong here, it's a generic virus. This type of virus is depicted on the bacteriophage wikipedia page but viruses that affect humans can have that shape also.
There are no known human viruses of that shape (source: I'm a biologist), so this seems like more of a mistake on Randall's side (albeit an odd one for him to make, so perhaps somehow deliberate?). 08:55, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
But... if it affects bacteria and humen have many bacteria (and many/most of them useful) in them, shouldn't it affect the human then as well? indirectly? Source: I have very vague knowledge :D --Lupo (talk) 09:06, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
It may be deliberate in the sense that almost everyone will go "Oh, that's a virus!" when they see this shape, contrary to the other 2 which look more like big molecules or bacteria. 09:20, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
The bacteriophage point is now very nicely addressed in the explanation. Good job to all who contributed to that part! 21:04, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

Don’t worry, pathogens! All is not lost. There will always be some humans whose brains don’t work very well, who will buy into ideas like “vaccines cause autism”, or “faith healing”, or “natural remedies”, or “Trump is always right”. You’ll still have hosts. Tualha (talk) 07:27, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

That's right 13:13, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
Not really "always". Those might eventually go extinct. Assuming this kind of stupidity is hereditary ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:17, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
Arthur C. Clarke said decades ago "It has yet to be proven that intelligence has any survival value." Likewise the hope the COVID-19 pandemic will eliminate people based on their unintelligent behavior is not proven. Based on limited data I am guessing the behavior of people around us affect our survival more then our own behavior.Godzilla (talk) 13:24, 1 April 2020 (UTC)
I'm not speaking about stupid people in general, but specifically about antivaxers. THOSE might be completely eradicated by some epidemic. Maybe not this one - definitely not before we find some vaccine for it (although, you know, there ARE some reports about TB vaccine having some effect) - but eventually ... hmmm ... actually, that would be quite effective pattern. Imagine some new patogen related to some we already vaccinate against but much more contagious. All people not vaccinated could be dead before we realize what they have in common and what allows the other to survive it. -- Hkmaly (talk) 00:22, 5 April 2020 (UTC)

Bacteriophages only infect bacteria and some kinds of Archaea, not humans, so the explanation is slightly wrong. They are probably the prettiest and easiest to recognise viral shape though, which is why they are so commonly used in cartoons and illustrations.Phil (talk) 08:29, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

I am just as much a hobby-virologist as anybody else suddenly is, but I have no clue what you are talking about. I don't even know which of the 3 shapes you mean. So please edit the explanation yourself if you see, that it is wrong. --Lupo (talk) 08:37, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
The narrator-virus in the middle of the three, that looks somewhat like a rotation of a mosquito, with a D20 on top. Wikipedia diagram 12:17, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
D20 systems have a lot to answer for. The original D6 Star Wars worked well enough, and now I learn the D20 version spread viruses! 11:23, 1 April 2020 (UTC)

"They bought lots of pasta." More like they bought lots of toilet paper! Humans, when we think rationally, can make great things happen. Humans, when we panic, can make incredibly foolish decisions. Nutster (talk) 11:32, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

It's both. At least in the supermarkets close to my place (western Germany), pasta, toilet paper, rice, milk, flour, yeast are all common to be out of stock or almost out of stock and usually their shelfes have by now signs that they will only sell a certain amount of them to each customer. --Lupo (talk) 12:14, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
Here in Italy toilet paper was never missing, whereas in some supermarket there was a pasta shortage (except for pennette lisce, obviously, which nobody likes so they stayed on the shelves).
-- 03:03, 14 April 2020 (UTC)
Any chance this reveals Randall as a secret Pastafarian? 13:23, 2 April 2020 (UTC)

Why does one of the voices say, "I hate lungs"? -- 13:08, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

Isn't it just a reference to Grouchy Smurf ? 08:27, 3 April 2020 (UTC)
To emphasize that they really do want to destroy those lungs. All good here. 13:13, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
It actually doesn't make sense. Pathogens LOVE lungs - it's a great place for them to have party in. -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:17, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
I always imagined it was just a reiteration of a past conversation, to whit something like: "Not another lung? We never get to see anything else. Really, George, I don't know why you keep on booking the same old package deal every time we go abroad. You know, Janice's family always try something different. Instead of just flying in and sitting on the lung all the time they do exciting things like camping out on an interesting door handle then hitching rides on fingers into noses, or even dining out and taking a chance on an unwashed cup to introduce them to an interesting new throat..." 11:23, 1 April 2020 (UTC)

This comic is a positive message giving good advice to people on how to beat the current COVID-19 spread. But the numbers clearly show it is not working (https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-us-canada-52066105/coronavirus-us-death-rates-v-china-italy-and-south-Korea, and many other locations on the internet.) Continuing to believe this pandemic can be beat with only lock-downs, hand washing and telling people to not do things they do naturally without thinking, is the public health equivalent of engineering design with friction-less surfaces and mass-less pullies. We need solutions that understand human nature and tell people to do things they actually will do, not keep saying the same things over and over again despite experience screaming at us that people are not doing it. The 6 places that have controlled the outbreak (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Japan) have used different methods of testing, tracing, isolating, restricting travel, etc., but the one thing they have in common is a large portion of the population is wearing masks in public. The 5 places with the largest uncontrolled outbreaks (USA (especially NYC) Italy, Spain, Germany and France) are all using the same lock down strategy and all have public health officials discouraging / preventing people from wearing masks in public. This should not be hard to figure out. And saying the limited supply of masks need to go to certain people, not working to increase the number of masks, is what failure looks like. -- Godzilla (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

You know that it's possible to make a mask from piece of fabric at home? It may not be as good as professional mask but would still provide some sort of protection. Also, the amount of masks will go up if China starts making them ... -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:17, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
Masks like the 1.2 million defective ones that a Chinese manufacturer sold to the Dutch government for the care workers? Or the simpler ones that Dutch experts say aren't effective because they're bound to be used incorrectly and thus give a false sense of security? 18:09, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
In a situation like the current one it is wise even for expert epidemiologists, virologists and medical practitioners to be very careful in their assumptions, analyses and conclusions. For anyone with little or no expertise in those fields, that goes doubly so. Note, for instance, that the regions you name as having controlled the outbreak also have very different social customs from those you name as uncontrolled. To an Italian, the everyday way Asians (excuse the generalizations) interact with each other is pretty much equivalent to "social distancing". When you regularly shake hands or hug (and then touch your nose or eyes, which people do constantly and subconsciously), the mask is not protective. In other words, there are many factors beyond simply wearing masks that can explain the current differences in virus spread, if such differences are even real (the current numbers are heavily skewed by test availability and criteria for who gets tested). More generally, we currently simply do not have enough information to confidently answer all the questions about this disease and how we should best combat it. Thus, I would recommend using expressions such as "this should not be hard to figure out" sparingly, especially given the knowledge that many very smart and highly trained people are working on "figuring it out"... 21:21, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
I agree it's not so trivial to figure out, but also that we should both start wearing masks and stop with the shaking hands - both is easy enough to try. -- Hkmaly (talk) 22:17, 31 March 2020 (UTC)
"In a situation like the current one it is wise even for expert epidemiologists, virologists and medical practitioners to be very careful in their assumptions, analyses and conclusions. For anyone with little or no expertise in those fields, that goes doubly so. Note, for instance, that the regions you name as having controlled the outbreak also have very different social customs from those you name as uncontrolled. To an Italian, the everyday way Asians (excuse the generalizations) interact with each other is pretty much equivalent to "social distancing"."

These statements are true. It is also true the the 6 places that have controlled the outbreak the best have very different social customs from each other. Likewise with the 5 places where the outbreak is spreading the most; Germans generally do not behave in public like Italians, but both cultures are experiencing similar 2-3 day double rates. "...given the knowledge that many very smart and highly trained people are working on "figuring it out"..." We all know countless examples in history of "very smart and highly trained people" being wrong for very long periods of time (no-such-things-as-germs, the-earth-is-the-center-of-the-universe, etc.) And the differences in the spread of this outbreak in different countries is not trivial; it is spreading 10s or 100s of time faster in some places then others. These differences are not being explained adequately by the "very smart and highly trained people". At some point we need to realize what we are being told does not match what we are seeing. When we do we will start solving the problem. Godzilla (talk) 13:24, 1 April 2020 (UTC)

To summarize your argument: Because even experts *can* be wrong (true!) we should always critically evaluate any information we receive (fully agree!). If in doing so we recognize an apparently obvious and seemingly reasonable pattern, we should assume our conclusions are true (uh-oh) and the experts must be wrong (uuuh) and we should announce our truth on the internet while deriding others' efforts to handle the crisis (ouf). You may be right about the masks, you may not be right. Time and more research will surely tell. Either way, however, I hope you can appreciate why someone might take issue with your approach to the problem. Cheers! 12:43, 4 April 2020 (UTC)

(Hey, people have been putting replies to someone else's unsigned comment under my joke. Lemme just move mine down here. -Jacky720)

Pathogens: infect humans through day-to-day contact
Humans: stop day-to-day contact
Humans: Checkmate.

That's right, Jacky720 just signed this (talk | contribs) 16:38, 31 March 2020 (UTC)

Coccus bacteria: It's not over, right? They can't sustain this. They must be bored and tired.
Coccus bacteria: Will they give up?

2 Years Later...
Yes, we absolutely gave up. Some parts of the population did so instantly, and are even doing things to assist the disease. It is never going to end now.
--davidgro (talk) 21:44, 17 June 2022 (UTC)

OK the news is saying the CDC is reconsidering their position on the public wearing masks. Note it is not you wearing a mask that protects you, but everyone else wearing one, including the people with the virus who do not show symptoms. The mask catches many of the droplets infected people exhale, sneeze or cough out. This reduces the amount of virus containing droplets in the air for you to breath in, reduces the virus on surfaces you touch and then bring to your face with your hand, etc.

Here is the one study on home made masks, finding them to be roughly 1/3 as effective as surgical masks: Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks

Here is one of a few studies showing the public wearing masks is effective against the spread of the flu, colds, etc: Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses

Here is one (of many) source for making a mask: Everything you need to know about making your own face mask

Godzilla (talk) 23:06, 1 April 2020 (UTC)

The text on xkcd.com just below the logo has been changed to read "Note: For technical reasons Wednesday's comic will be posted Thursday instead. Apologies for the delay!" Not sure if that's worth mentioning anywhere here, or on tomorrow's explanation once the Thursday comic goes up. Ijpete98 (talk) 03:25, 2 April 2020 (UTC)

We shouldn't rule out some type of April Fool's Day joke! Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 04:55, 2 April 2020 (UTC)
As far as I'm concerned, the question is whether he has something with elaborate Javascript that he's still working on lined up for slightly belated April Fool's, or is the delay itself the joke, in a way that might make more sense once we do see it? Time will tell. -- KarMann (talk) 11:10, 2 April 2020 (UTC)
He ended up postponing the April Fool's joke Garden for three days because it was too complex. SO sounds like it is this. Was wondering if he would do one after all these corona comics. --Kynde (talk) 14:15, 2 April 2020 (UTC)

Didn't rabies discover the solution to this? It affects the brain and causes changes in behavior that help it spread. Barmar (talk) 16:29, 14 May 2020 (UTC)

I really wish I had ever been as optimistic about it as Randall here. Even more, I wish I had been wrong not to be. --davidgro (talk) 21:48, 17 June 2022 (UTC)