Chandra Wickramasinghe is no stranger to extraordinary claims: he, along with Fred Hoyle, worked on the original panspermia hypothesis, the idea that life is “seeded” through the cosmos by things like meteors and rogue planets.
More recently, I wrote about his findings regarding a meteorite in Sri Lanka, which may have contained a fossil diatom, something biological that may have arrived from beyond our planet.
In my opinion, however, Wickramasinghe’s most compelling hypothesis is that many diseases have, in fact, originated from outer space. These include the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus and the ~1918 influenza outbreak, which he discusses in his letter, SARS–a clue to its origins?:
“The injection from space of evolved microorganisms that have well-attested terrestrial affinities raises the possibility that pathogenic bacteria and viruses might also be introduced. The annals of medical history detail many examples of plagues and pestilences that can be attributed to space incident microbes in this way.”
Considering the 1918-1920 influenza outbreak, Wickramasinghe suggests that the unusual characteristics of its spread through multiple “widely separated” areas of the world may indicate that it arrived from beyond Earth. The disease may have hit various, otherwise disconnected locations directly from the atmosphere.
Wickramasinghe, quoting the paper Influenza: 1918, a revisit?:
“The influenza pandemic of 1918 occurred in three waves. The first appeared in the winter and spring of 1917—1918… The lethal second wave… involved almost the entire world over a very short time…
Its epidemiologic behaviour was most unusual. Although person-to-person spread occurred in local areas, the disease appeared on the same day in widely separated parts of the world on the one hand, but, on the other, took days to weeks to spread relatively short distances.”
In the same letter, he suggests that SARS may have arrived in much the same way:
“…the virus is unexpectedly novel, and appeared without warning in mainland China. A small amount of the culprit virus introduced into the stratosphere could make a first tentative fall out East of the great mountain range of the Himalayas, where the stratosphere is thinnest, followed by sporadic deposits in neighbouring areas.
If the virus is only minimally infective, as it seems to be, the subsequent course of its global progress will depend on stratospheric transport and mixing, leading to a fall out continuing seasonally over a few years.”
Most scientists don’t agree with Wickramasinghe. The accepted origin of SARS, for example, appears to be that it is a coronavirus that originated in Guangdong Province, China, when it spread from animal hosts to humans. It then circulated around the world via airplanes and other transportation.
However, while Wickramasinghe’s ideas are considered “fringe,” I don’t think they’re too out there. With all the meteorites and space gunk that falls to Earth every day (“5 to 300 metric tons,” seriously), I wonder if maybe something unexpected could get through…
(And just an aside: it’s also interesting to note that experiments have revealed bacteria is much deadlier in space than on Earth).
Image credit: NASA