Reviews by Wm Olkowski, PhD
We read the following two books for both entertainment and as an effort to update ourselves on virology in general. Getting older is a drag and virus caused mortality becomes more likely as our bodies no longer function as in our youth. Influenza in an average year, for example, kills 36,000 people in the US, mostly oldsters. So it was rewarding to get acquainted again with how the field has grown since I studied virology.
150 years ago the death rate for smallpox was about 50 million per year. It was the biggest killer. The current AIDS pandemic with estimated cases of 60 million per year – now kills about 30 million per year – mostly in Africa and Asia. So it looks like we traded smallpox for AIDS. I studied virology back in graduate school in the 1960s so I was stunned by the depth and breathe of new information, most easily reviewed by a search on Wikipedia. But these books are easy to read compared to the encyclopedic collections as they humanize the discovery process. There are lots of scientists working to unravel knowledge of this group. Start washing your hands!!
A Planet of Viruses. Carl Zimmer. 2011. Univ. Chicago Press, 109 pp.
Produced for the layperson this new book provides a brief overview of newest developments in virology. It is divided into 3 sections with 10 chapters covering the following virus groups: rhinoviruses (common cold viruses), influenza virus, human papilomavirus (cervical cancer), bacteriophages, marine phages, endogenous retroviruses, human immunodeficiency virus, West Nile virus, Severe acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Ebola, and Smallpox. The introduction covers the discovery of the first virus: tobacco mosaic virus.
The most startling thing I learned is that, although the number of known viruses (with names) now number about 2,000 this is just the tip of the iceberg. Just how big the iceberg is may become startling after another decade or two. Samples of marine phages alone indicate there are 10 to the 30th power of marine bacteriophages, 90% of which are unknown. These attack only marine bacteria. This number is so hard to visualize that Zimmer says that this group outnumbers all marine life by about 15 to one. And if you could weigh this group it would weigh more than 75 million blue whales.
Plus these viruses are intimately intertwined with the biospheric bacterial so how they go has a lot to do with our oxygen supply, for example, since the photosynthesizing bacteria produce most of our oxygen. None of this I knew before.
The next most startling thing was about jumping genes. This refers to retroviruses, which insert themselves into our genome. There appears to be a gradient with these viruses as some are inserted into the human genome (and other species) and stay there for millions of years being reproduced along with the other genes. Others insert themselves, hide in the genome and are expressed by some trigger producing disease; avian leukosis virus is an example. Others, when expressed produce cancers. Retroviruses have been traced back to before multicellular life started. It is estimated that there are 100,000 virus fragments encoded in our genome, comprising about 8% of total genes. This information suggests that viruses are integral to our genetics, meaning we could not live without them, and that they may have had an important role in transferring genetic material between species and among individuals. Certainly they played a part in our evolution. But just what part remains to be elaborated as this is a frontier.
And there’s more. The discovery of a very large virus in an amoeba called a mimivirus, with over 1,000 genes, has expanded the characterization of a virus, since most of the other viruses are vastly smaller, with 10 or slightly more genes. And then came the discovery of a virus inside the mimivirus. That means viruses could parasitize viruses, and suggests there may be many more viruses hidden in more mimiviruses.
But the information about influenza is most interesting because of how the virus mutates and produces its variations. Flu is an RNA virus, which means it does not have DNA like we do, but has a much simpler genome (about 10 genes or so) and when it reproduces it does so rapidly that many mutations are produced. DNA viruses like our KNA genome have error correcting mechanisms. Thus DNA viruses are more stable. There is no such error correcting process in RNA viruses. So once inside a cell, the flu virus takes over the cells’ machinery and produces great numbers of new viruses many of which have mutations. These mutations are then selected by the host. For example, if an antiviral drug is used to interfere with virus attachment and or reproduction, mutations which can go around these substances then are selected for and the virus persists and continues to invade more and more cells, disabling its host.
Level 4, Virus Hunters of the CDC. Joe McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hock. 1996. Barnes and Noble Books. 397 pp.
This is a most stimulating book by two courageous doctors who travelled the earth to analyze new diseases and do what they could to stop them from becoming epidemics. I doubt that most people know about the effort and risks involved. The pathogen hunters believe in helping out less advantaged people. Disease is not punishment from a vengeful god, as is commonly held by many religious people.
Level 4 is the level for the highest threat pathogens. As one goes up the levels more and more protection is needed for the scientists. The book is not for the faint hearted and these doctors with good hearts and minds risked their own lives in many threatening situations. The tragedy is how bad the medical facilities and all other facilities are in many places where they had to work, mostly with no electricity, lots of filth, rats, deathly sick people, witchdoctors, corrupt government officials, non-existent transportation systems, and lots of poverty. And even their own superiors in the US were problems (see below).
One of the biggest efforts by these doctors and their associates was made in the early stages when Lassa Fever, Ebola and AIDS first erupted. The book starts off with their experiences in Zaire and southern Sudan in 1979, exploring what became to be known as the first outbreak of Ebola virus. This story is really the prototype of their subsequent experiences in Africa and Asia.
They would fly great distances on short notice, somehow get to the remote location, find lots of sick people many already dead with no medical help, get blood samples, and then send the samples back to the CDC in Atlanta GA for identification. They ran all the risks. One episode that Joe McCormick reports is when he was stuck with a needle he had just taken out of a presumed Ebola patient. Since it took 5 days for the disease to manifest he reports on having anxiety about his family, wondering how they would survive if he died. And then the relief when the patient did not have Ebola! I could feel his relief from the written page.
The two authors were not a couple but married later and together took positions in Pakistan, at a time when the government there was trying to upgrade the training of medical students. Their stories in Karachi are just amazing. For a real-life heroic story this beats any Hollywood fabrication with its super-heroes.
The horror of dying from these newly acquired viruses that have jumped from wild animals to humans is hard to believe. Essentially people die from being drowned in their own blood. Blood comes out of all body openings in the last stages of disease, including the eyes. And if we in the developed world, do not pay attention and do what we can to detect and stop these pathogens they will arrive on our shores with their horrors. Nowhere else is it so obvious that we are all interconnected, whether we like it not.
And further, poverty – physical and mental poverty – is what one fights in trying to contain these new diseases. And the mental poverty is not just out there in Zaire, Sudan, or Pakistan, but right here in our own back yard. An example from the early AIDS discoveries in Africa will suffice. It involves how an official of the Regan Administration reacted to new information about AIDS: So word gets back to CDC about a deadly horrible series of deaths in deepest Africa and a team is dispatched. The team works an exhausting series of days and weeks then reports back to CDC headquarters with some astounding findings. AIDS cases in Africa indicate it is a heterosexual disease, which affects sexually active women. These are women forced to service men for money in order for their survival and the survival of their children. So when CDC hears the report they decide to call the Assistant Secretary of Health, then under the Regan Administration.
It’s a conference call and it takes awhile to present the information, and then they wait for a response. There is a long silence and then Regan appointee, Dr. Edward Brandt says: “There must be another explanation, have you considered other vectors, like mosquitoes?” Obviously he found it easier to talk about mosquitoes than sex. The evidence did not support his idea (re: AIDS was a homosexual disease) as children and old people were not affected. If this problem was a mosquito transmitted arborvirus, the young and the old would be equally affected. Mosquitoes bite anybody randomly and malaria occurs randomly, maybe the young are most heavily hit.
Brandt could not be moved even after a 20-minute dialogue. And no help was forthcoming for a year or more. He didn’t want to believe it was a heterosexual disease. Ideology trumped science again. Imagination beats reality. Science is our best tool to understand reality – especially biology. But AIDS was supposed to be a homosexual disease. And good thing too as homosexuals were going against god’s will.
This is one of the main reasons to keep religion out of politics. Government appointees should work for all the people not just the religious believers.