The reproduce, but they don’t eat, breathe or excrete

James Meek

  • The Invisible Enemy: A Natural History of Viruses by Dorothy Crawford
    Oxford, 275 pp, £14.99, September 2000, ISBN 0 19 850332 6

Last September, the Royal Society organised a conference to discuss Edward Hooper’s book The River, which promoted the theory that HIV was accidentally spread to humans from chimpanzees through a polio vaccination programme in Africa in the 1950s. Coincidentally, or not, on the eve of the conference, a British TV channel screened the 1995 Hollywood thriller Outbreak, starring Dustin Hoffman as a maverick military virologist given hours to find a vaccine to halt the spread of a deadly African virus in California before the military obliterates the town where it has taken hold. The film’s opening is set in Africa and based on the emergence of the Ebola virus, which was first recorded in northern Zaire in 1976, where it infected 318 people, 280 of whom died. Outbreak then goes astray: rather than portraying years of clinical trials and exhaustive lab work, the movie locates the key to getting the vaccine for the fictional virus in the ability of Hoffman and Cuba Gooding Jr to dodge heat-seeking missiles in a tree-top helicopter chase.

It’s a silly film, except in one sense. There is a long, old and dramatic human struggle against viruses. Hollywood may have smothered it in melodrama, but the enemy is real enough to draw virologists to the movie – Dorothy Crawford refers to it in her introduction – and to contribute to the brittle atmosphere of the Royal Society conference. It was like a meeting of leaders in wartime, pleased to be there, but anxious at spending time away from work while lives were being lost on the front line.

The military analogy isn’t out of place. The flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed 100 million people, more than died in the war which had just ended. In the late 20th and very early 21st centuries, when full-on warfare has become rarer and remoter for Westerners, disease is now the area where we experience the feelings of emotional intensity associated with war, the crushing communal defeat, sudden personal loss, plodding hardship and hysterical relief at victory. Man has smallpox on the run; polio emerges. Polio is almost beaten; HIV begins its offensive. A vaccine against HIV may be within reach; what next? (The current foot and mouth epidemic is a reminder that viruses which afflict people are not the only enemy.)

The story goes back to our ancient hominid ancestors, sitting in the darkness around a fire, afraid of the predators out there in the night. A million years later, we have killed or corralled all the big beasts which could hurt us, but the predators are still out there. We have shrunk the jungles, and think we have mastered all wild things, but those shrunken forests conceal the carriers of viruses which could wreak terrible destruction. There is a theory that some viruses are not just harmless to their hosts, but may even be beneficial to them because they cause deadly disease in their enemies – such as man. We still do not know the animal or insect which carries the Ebola virus, and one of the reasons could be that the virus has killed the few who have disturbed the animal’s habitat. The closer man gets to the last wild strongholds, the closer he may be getting to the ultimate predator. Imagine a virus with the effect and latency period of HIV which could be spread by a sneeze.

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