A Conversation with Three Pandemic Viruses

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Overview of the Series

I begin my overview with a question. Are the activities of these viruses random, or do viruses have the capability of planning their destructive behaviors to match our human weaknesses? After reading what they have to say, can we gain insight into what might be next for us, even as in this moment we are unable to control the newest of the pandemics? Read what follows carefully and determine whether the truth shall make us free or warn us of a coming plague that will enslave us all.

As for myself, ever since reading The Plague by Albert Camus in High School, I was intrigued with the devastation that microbes could force onto mankind. My first encounter with a living influenza virus was not until my last year of college. In 1957 I left Brooklyn, New York, making my way by Greyhound bus to Wheaton College in Illinois for my senior year. I was looking forward to my graduation in the spring of 1958.

1957 asian flu wheaton college I arrived on campus in early September along with my fellow classmates, all eager to complete our studies and obtain a degree. By the end of September, we were already in full swing. During the first week of October, our rather serious college president stood before us in the early morning chapel service and announced, “I have just been informed by the Student Health Services that the Asian flu epidemic is progressing and we will not be meeting in large groups including the chapel, the library, and student buildings. We will also have to curtail some of the college activities. You will still be attending class, some of which will be held outdoors under the elm trees.” No one that I know of left school. It would have required traveling by train or automobile or Greyhound bus. Air travel was limited and expensive.

I don’t remember much about the week when the influenza pandemic hit the college campus. While that pandemic killed 120,000 individuals in the US, only a few students got very sick and no one that I knew of died. We got down to the business of studying after restrictions were lifted and focused on getting good grades, completing coursework, and graduating in the spring of 1958. Our yearbook described the flu epidemic in only three sentences, referring to the outdoor meetings as somewhat of a unique adventure. When I recently questioned several classmates at a 60th reunion, few even recalled the episode.

That 1957 influenza epidemic triggered my interest in biology and medicine. Following graduation from college, I applied to medical school, was accepted, graduated, and then went on to train in pediatrics and immunology. After accepting a position as Professor of Pediatrics and Immunology at the University of California in 1971, I journeyed to San Francisco. Things were quite predictable during the next decade until 1981 when everything changed. As an immunologist, I was catapulted into the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Early on it had all of the indications of becoming a highly destructive pandemic, but most people didn’t believe us researchers. Even other scientists were skeptical. For me, the COVID-19 pandemic that we are now struggling through is a déjà vu of the AIDS pandemic – skepticism, denial, misinformation, political interference, pontification, and bureaucratic delays. Perhaps the only thing that is different now is the constant barrage of tweets emanating from nonexperts who don’t contribute anything except confusion. I won’t say anything more about the AIDS pandemic now. I’ll let HIV tell other parts of his story later.

So here we are in the middle of a “novel” virus pandemic that seems to be overwhelming almost everything and everyone – our healthcare delivery system, our scientists, our capitalistic economy and, of course, any ability of our national political and public health systems to coordinate an effective counter attack on what is killing hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. Getting the correct information is difficult. In the past I’ve always relied on the scientific and medical literature, but now we have been overtaken by Twitter, Facebook, blogs, You Tube, Instagram, and other forms of social media. Mainstream media is no better, having succumbed to premature announcements that lack credible documentation before being released to the public. No wonder this is creating such a skeptical population of people. So, I thought, maybe it’s time to hear from the viruses themselves. They haven’t had an opportunity to tell humans their side of the story. I’m not trying to defend these viruses, or give them undue prominence, or make them into “good guys.” I just believe in equal time and going directly to the source for first-hand information. And, it might be informative for us all to at least read what they have to say.

Click here to read Conversation One. The Asian Flu »

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Conversation One. The Asian Flu

The first virus with whom I had a conversation was the Asian flu of 1957. He was called the Asian flu because he was first discovered in Hong Kong. He came from a long line of influenza A viruses whose well established family name was Orthomyxoviridae. The family had the reputation of producing progeny that caused annual influenza virus epidemics, though not pandemics of any great magnitude. But there were exceptions. The 1957 pandemic was the first major influenza pandemic since the Spanish flu in 1918. What’s interesting about the Asian flu is that today, most people have forgotten how much damage he produced —some 120,000 deaths in the US and millions worldwide. He went into hiding after a vaccine was rapidly introduced just as he was getting started. He plans to tell us more about this during his presentation. Incidentally, he prefers to be called by his shortened and more neutral name of H2N2 to avoid any unnecessary political controversy as a result of using the name Asian flu.

What the Asian Flu (H2N2) Had to Say

Thank you for this unique and long overdue opportunity. I’m a bit apprehensive about what I should and should not say, especially with so many of you humans reading this, let alone COVID-19 and HIV with their own critical analysis. I have not had an opportunity to directly explain to humans who I am, what I do, and how I got around the world. I might add that along with you humans, I too am eager to hear the stories from COVID-19 and HIV. There is nothing like learning from others and applying what you’ve learned to something that might work better in the future. As you may know, I have been accused of being dormant – not so. What I learn I may be able to incorporate into my next attempt to reenter humankind and cause a major pandemic. Don’t be surprised if that happens soon.

It is probably not the best of approaches, but I do need to begin with a criticism. What took you so long to set up these presentations? It is about time someone asked at least a few of us viruses to tell our side of the story. Our opinion counts too, especially since we probably know more about why we do what we do and how we go about doing it. Many of the so-called experts in this current pandemic just want to sound off but don’t know what they are talking about. That’s why it’s essential to go directly to sources like us to get the facts. 

First, I would like to set something straight — we viruses are not stupid and we certainly are not sitting around creating random mutations to use with our genes without a master plan. I will speak for myself, but I will be interested in hearing the opinions of HIV and COVID-19 in their stories. For my part, ever since the 1918 so-called Spanish flu, I was waiting for the right time to appear, all the while rearranging my mutations and perfecting my genetic makeup. That moment happened when I escaped from my duck hosts. As I left them, I thanked them profusely for their hospitality for so many decades, and they in turn thanked me for keeping my promise not to make them sick. Next, I began my journey, full of confidence, using the first human I infected. I fantasized about making my grand entry into the US. As it turned out, I had to spend a little bit more time in Hong Kong perfecting my assault.

Timing was critical. Since the Spanish flu in 1918 there hadn’t been any major influenza pandemics. You humans had become pretty complacent. You thought that I would be just another ordinary influenza epidemic that came and went every year. No big deal, as you like to say. The mid-nineteen fifties seemed just about the right time to act. I was quite excited when I finally said farewell to my Hong Kong progeny. All that I needed next to begin my expansion was a single human to get a foothold in America. Most humans think that epidemics begin with hundreds or even thousands of invaders, but that’s a military concept. We viruses rely on exponential growth that begins with one individual. Just think what HIV was able to accomplish by infecting just one human in a remote region of Africa. I think you’ll find HIV’s story fascinating.

I had other reasons for thinking that 1957 would be a good year to make my move. For instance, the state of scientific knowledge. There were some really bright scientists working on vaccines in the nineteen fifties. However, I felt they didn’t really understand how vaccines worked and what kind of immune response was needed to protect individuals from bad actors like me. If I waited too long, scientists would become so sophisticated that they would pinpoint just what was needed for a vaccine and public health officials would jump at the chance to keep me at bay. If that happened, I would lose my only opportunity to start the pandemic that I had envisioned ever since I was a young viral particle centuries ago.

At this point I must admit that I made a mistake. I’m not shy about admitting I underestimated the capabilities of an individual who, in 1957, was a little-known scientist. We viruses accept the responsibility for our own mistakes. We don’t try to shift the blame onto others as I gather is quite common among humans. So, here’s what I didn’t count on — a human who was relatively unknown to the scientific community but had the insight to realize what I was about to do. This guy was working in some sort of facility called the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. He was a PhD microbiologist with a small lab and no fancy research equipment, but he was familiar with making vaccines, fairly crude ones at that. Most of today’s scientists would snub their noses at what he and his fellow researchers did. He wasn’t popular either. He rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, especially with his impatience and his bypassing any regulatory roadblocks that would slow down vaccine development and getting it to the public. 

One day, this relatively unknown PhD person was sitting in his office reading about me in the New York Times. The article said that I had started an epidemic of influenza in Hong Kong. By the time the article came out I had already infected a couple hundred thousand individuals. He nearly fell out of his chair as he realized that this might be the beginning of a major influenza pandemic that would hit the US very soon. He immediately cabled a US Army lab in Japan and found a medical officer who identified a Navy serviceman who was sick with the flu. The serviceman was instructed to gargle with salt water and spit into a cup. Two weeks later the sample arrived in his laboratory. It took his small team of researchers only 14 days to culture me. Of course, he had to bypass a lot of regulatory government agencies and other bureaucracies, but in four months six small vaccine companies had manufactured 40 million doses of a vaccine that he thought would work. No fancy biomolecular studies and no studies of thousands of individuals to prove it worked. He realized it was an emergency if he was going to stop me from creating the first pandemic in almost 40 years. By September, 1957, 40 million doses of the vaccine were administered, putting an end to my vision of surpassing the devastation of the Spanish flu pandemic. My only consolation was that I was still able to kill 120,000 humans in the US. Not bad but not great either.

I hate people like that microbiologist, and in the future, I will avoid anyone like him. This may seem crazy to you humans but the scientists that I favor now are the ones with fancy and expensive equipment and really big laboratories. They spend their time trying to figure out the minute molecular details of me and other viruses which often increase their chances of failure as they target the wrong part of us. Maybe they do that because they want to claim everything as their own private intellectual property. But, in the process, it also increases the time that it takes to develop a vaccine along with the chances of failure. All of us viruses who are interested in creating pandemics cheer them on as we take advantage of the delays they create to firmly establish new versions of ourselves.

COVID-19 will probably tell you that she was smarter than I was by waiting longer before she made her entry into humans until the right mutation had occurred. But COVID-19 and I are really different viruses and she had a distinct advantage, as she will probably boast about. COVID-19 may also tell you that I’m lazy and have just gone to sleep for six decades. That’s not true. I have been welcomed back with open wings into my duck hosts, getting myself reacquainted with them, and establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. I am making as many mutations as I can, sorting them out, and just waiting for the right one before I return. I may try my hand at a recombination. That’s when I take some of my genes and some of the genes from another virus and, when we are both in the same cell, create a new virus. I’ve got some great ideas of what to do after talking to COVID-19 and HIV and sharing some secrets with them. I’m not going to make the same mistake I made in 1957 by entering humans too soon to create a sustained epidemic. 

Arthur Ammann: Reflection on What H2N2 Told Me

We have read an incredible story from one of three viruses that I have had the privilege of speaking to.  We have received some insight as to why and how one of them created a global pandemic that plagued mankind in 1957. It is sobering to realize how deliberate influenza viruses can be. Let us take them seriously. Had H2N2 waited to make his appearance until this century, he would have taken full advantage of what mankind has created to transform epidemics into pandemics — overpopulation, urbanization, political interference, global travel, a global economic system that increases the gap between the rich and the poor, and an ever-increasing loss of humanity.

Above all, let us protect ourselves against ignorance, misinformation, dogmatism, and those who put their own interests above what can be done to protect mankind from these plagues. Personally, I will not dissuade myself from the realization that these plagues can be used for political aggrandizement, scientific advancement at the price of public good, and commercialization for the sake of profits. Therefore, I will always seek the facts, question authority, and diligently pursue the truth.

Click here to read Conversation Two. COVID-19 »

Have a question for H2N2? Type it in the comment form below.
I might be able to get hold of him and get your question answered.

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Conversation Two. COVID-19

The second virus with whom I had a conversation was COVID-19. Her full name is SARS-CoV-2. She comes from the slightly less prominent family of Orthocoronavirinae. She prefers to go by her nickname of COVID-19. It was kind of her to accept an invitation to tell her story during a time when she is quite busy attacking and being attacked. Although H2N2 and COVID-19 come from different families they have some traits in common. They are both patient and don’t mind remaining undetected for decades while they refine their techniques for creating a pandemic. When they attack they move quickly and are quite vicious. COVID-19 is called a novel virus which gives her a special advantage. She will tell you how important this is because, as a novel virus, there is no pre-existing immunity in humans to slow her down. It’s kind of a one-upmanship among the families of viruses. One of the reasons COVID-19 is so eager to tell her story is that she is getting quite annoyed and angry at all of the mischaracterizations and misinformation that is being told about her and wants an opportunity to set the record straight. A warning. My conversation with Covid-19 was more provocative than with H2N2. I was surprised at how much she knew about us humans and how she used it to launch her very own pandemic.

What COVID-19 Had To Say

T hank you for inviting me to join in the conversations. I have a few introductory comments to make. First, I belong to a family of viruses that live in bats, dogs, cats and even camels. Unlike humans, we welcome diversity in our hosts as well as ourselves and work together to ensure our success. I can’t imagine fighting against ourselves. I get my best mutations by living in bats who are very cooperative and never get sick while I am working in them. One characteristic of our family is that we are usually pretty low key and haven’t caused any major pandemics of significance in quite a while. But following my last mutation, and it was a major one, I had the feeling that this was it. I used the new version of myself with a very significant mutation to recombine with a new version of another virus that had also infected my host. You have already heard a little bit about what recombination means and how H2N2 is considering it as a possibility for his inevitable return. I won’t identify the other virus involved in my recombination but together, with our newfound power, we were ready to initiate a pandemic— so I went for it. I left my host in my new recombinant form and infected a human. I was now what you call a novel virus and a much more potent one because humans had no immunity to me. This was important. Other influenza viruses cause what I would call small epidemics and not pandemics. That’s because humans anticipate their arrival every year and can predict who might be the villain in the next epidemic. Then they jumpstart vaccine production. That keeps things in check, or at least that’s what humans believe. They seem to forget that my family can mutate around that predictability and create novel offspring. I always smile when I see how cocky humans are in overestimating their abilities and underestimating our power. Watch what I can do when they announce that they have a vaccine to keep me in check. By the time that happens I will have mutated around it.

It’s important for everyone to understand that my leap from my host into humans was not a random decision. I had to wait for just the right mutation and also the right human to carry me to a distant location. So did H2N2, and it has been interesting listening to H2N2’s explanation of why he chose 1957 to jump into humans and spread himself throughout the world. A lot of thought went into his decision. But if you allow me to be critical, I think the major reason his damage was limited was that he jumped the gun too soon, so to speak. He came close to having all the mutations he needed to cause as many infections and deaths as I am doing right now, but he just didn’t wait until all of the right genes were in place to make it more difficult to produce a vaccine. Perhaps too, if he had just waited another five or six decades, not very long for us viruses, we could have created a “one-two” punch. Keep tuned in about this. It may happen yet.

Nevertheless, I actually learned a lot from H2N2 about the importance of amplifying factors and how I could take advantage of them to cause faster infections, travel father, and cause more deaths. Speed of transmission is really important because you need to get a pandemic going before humans have an organized chance to react. So, I waited six decades since the last major influenza pandemic until the US and the world population tripled. That gave me hundreds of millions more potential hosts to carry me around the world to create epicenters of infection among poor and disadvantaged individuals. My most attractive hosts were people who were highly susceptible to being invaded by me. Many of them lived in prime locations like New York City with densely populated neighborhoods, inadequate health facilities and, one of my favorite places to attack, overcrowded nursing homes. Most everything that is that big is so dysfunctional that they won’t even acknowledge that I’m there until I’ve gotten a good foothold.

Troop Ship WWI

Regarding crowding, I learned something really important from the 1918 Spanish flu as well. The Spanish flu pointed out that crowding and human movement got him around the US, Europe, Central America, South America, and Africa, firmly establishing his pandemic.  He expanded his reach by hitching rides with massive troop movements in World War I, and just went crazy with excitement when all those soldiers were transported in jam packed troopships and trains. Bad enough that they were going to risk their lives in war, let alone getting infected with the Spanish flu. Talk about germ warfare. The Spanish flu turned germ warfare against everyone.

I also learned from the Spanish flu that some things just don’t change even if a whole century has passed. The Spanish flu got help in spreading in the US from a well-publicized and highly political Liberty Loan Parade of 200,000 humans to promote World War 1 government bonds. It was considered unpatriotic to cancel the parade. I bet this sounds familiar to some of you humans today as you listen to certain politicians declare that nothing is going to stop their gatherings. My own assessment of the thought process is that I am glad we viruses have so many fewer genes than humans. Somehow during evolution humans got the narcissism gene and we viruses didn’t. We would never hold any kind of rally that would endanger our own lives.

So, the Spanish flu recommended that I wait for a more effective and rapid form of transportation to spread myself globally and search out areas of high human density. I decided to wait until 2019 when there were lots of jet planes crowded with people traveling around the world. I heard that last year there were 4 billion people traveling in airplanes. There were no jet airplanes for Spanish flu to take advantage of, and when H2N2 made his attempt in 1957 to create a pandemic there were just a few jets flying to and from Europe. Cruise Ship 2020I also learned that when humans get sick, even with what seems to be the flu, they don’t cancel their airline reservations. They just go and make believe they are perfectly well. That was a way for me to kind of sneak aboard a jet plane. I also briefly experimented with other ways of transporting myself, like cruise ships, but they were slow and it was too easy to quarantine all of my infected hosts to prevent me from spreading.

Let me tell you a little bit about my thinking and, by the way, we viruses do think. First, we place a high priority on helping one another because we trust each other. Humans seem to put their trust in politicians and dictators who say they are out to help everyone but they’re really extraordinarily self-centered. Also, we are not like humans with complicated brains that sometimes get confused about what’s right or wrong. We can stay focused probably because we’ve got a limited number of genes and don’t make things too confusing. Can you believe this? Most of us viruses have fewer than 20 genes and humans have 25,000. It is like David and Goliath. I was able to create the current global pandemic with only a handful of genes and humans, with 25,000 genes, can’t seem to stop me.

Before I go any further, I would like to talk about China and why both H2N2 and I used China as a jumping off point. First, we really didn’t have a choice. We needed the right host, not just any old bird or animal, and we needed to have decades to develop the best mutations to make certain that our genes were working properly. We knew from past experience that cows in England, sheep in New Zealand or penguins in Antarctica weren’t the right hosts. Besides, there are not a whole lot of people in those regions either. Once we had the confidence that everything was a go, we waited for the best candidate to infect. It needed to be a person who was living in a really crowded village with lots of other people who had common colds so no one would think that anything out of the ordinary was happening. Then we could start our process of spreading. Anyone who’s ever visited China knows about the crowds and has experienced people pressing against one another and moving from city to city. People in China have problems in getting access to healthcare, so they don’t go to see a doctor or go to the hospital unless they are really sick. It’s like what’s happening now in the US with telemedicine — making it difficult for the disadvantaged and the elderly to see a doctor in person until, I believe this is the expression you use – they are on deaths door. We might have been able to identify another country but China worked in the past and so why change? I am certain you will hear more from HIV about his reasoning for using a completely different host and country.

Another strategy that I used, which may seem odd, was to initially remain rather inconspicuous, by limiting myself to just a few cities until there was a plane leaving from Wuhan directly to Rome, Italy. You’re probably thinking by now: why didn’t she go directly to a place like New York City? Well, I needed to hone my capabilities, create refinements, and then move to a highly desirable city like New York City. Going to New York directly would’ve been too obvious and might have alerted some people that I was really going to start a major new pandemic.

Once I got to Rome, I moved out into some of the rural areas that were still reasonably crowded. I took advantage of the culture of Italy — close contact, intimate greetings, and sharing food, all of which help me spread quickly. It didn’t take me long to realize how effective I had become. I could use Rome as a hub for getting to other European cities and eventually to my most desired destination — New York City. Next, I found an unsuspecting, sweet, and affectionate elderly woman, who had saved up for a whole year to go to Brooklyn, New York to visit relatives. I parked myself inside her respiratory track and established a really good infection that could spread through the cabin of the airplane when she coughed. For good measure, I infected at least a dozen more people on the plane, one of those new jumbo jets with more than 400 people board, a déjà vu of those crowded World War I troopships and the Spanish flu.

New York Subway 2020

Selecting New York City was a no-brainer. I identified a city that was densely populated, had multiple types of public transportation with wedged in passengers, and crowds of people everywhere — stores, public events, entertainment spots, and even on the streets themselves. I got a real boost from the thousands of people who jammed into the New York subway system every day. I infected just a few key humans initially, which was all that was needed to take advantage of the wind currents created by the trains as they hurtled through the underground tunnels. It was an exhilarating experience to be carried through those tunnels on wind currents and land on a new individual waiting on the train platform. It was a faster way of spreading myself than by just one person coughing on another person.

New York City had another fairly neat way of allowing me to spread myself. Those of you who have been to the city know that it’s a vertical city with millions of people using elevators every day to get to their offices in the skyscrapers. There are hundreds of thousands of people who live in high-rise apartment buildings that need to use elevators to get to the floor where they live. I love elevators for spreading myself. I cozy up to 10 to 20 candidates packed into a small space with the elevator whizzing up and down and with me swirling all around them until someone inhales me into their lungs.

Big cities like New York are really dysfunctional. Cities spend a lot of money pampering the top 10% of their residents but their support for education and health care for poor people is embarrassingly inadequate. Their politicians like to argue about almost everything and blame one another if something goes wrong. It’s hard to believe that some of the top city politicians and health officials actually denied that I had arrived in their city. By the time they reacted, I was firmly established and had already infected thousands of people. The newly infected humans unwittingly became part of my team and helped me spread myself beyond the city — to places like Connecticut, New Jersey, Florida, and even around the world as I hitched rides with infected humans traveling from the New York airports to more distant locations.

Nursing Homes 2020

Incidentally, New York has one of the highest populations of elderly people. That attracted me because I could easily infect them and cause a very high death rate. They lived under circumstances that were almost like being in prison and were getting the bare minimum of healthcare. Some of you may get angry at me for being so cavalier about targeting elderly people but if you think about it, I’m actually doing you an economic favor. You know as well as I do how much it costs your government to take care of the elderly through Medicare and Medicaid. Keeping some older people alive when they can’t even communicate and are going to die anyway doesn’t make much economic sense. Aren’t we doing you a favor if we reduce the population of elderly people? At least you can blame us without having to listen to the politicians come up with their lame excuses. Besides, maybe the money that is saved on healthcare could be used for something to benefit the younger population.

Some humans may think that I am beginning to retreat now and others think that I’m going to come back with an even greater vengeance or perhaps combine forces with one of the more ordinary influenza viruses. I definitely want to wait until the usual human complacency sets in and scientists think that they’ve got all the answers. There are hints of that happening now. Then I’ll probably make my next move. Of course, I am not going to tell you when that will happen. I don’t want to reveal my secret intentions. I may use some of the things that I am learning now and return at a future date when you humans will have created even better conditions for me, like massive increases in the population of humans and equally large increases in the number of the poor and elderly.

You may wonder if there is any good at all that I, as a virus, or members of my family do? Not really, although some humans, especially scientists, may argue with my point of view and point out some esoteric manipulations of different viruses to create new treatments and vaccines.  As for my opinion, I guess the only good that we might be accused of doing is limiting the world’s population growth and reducing the economic burden on the rich to have to take care of the poor, the weak, and the elderly.

My future plans are not fully formulated. There are some variables that I have to work out such as the selection of my future animal hosts, whether I try recombination again, and where I might initiate the next pandemic. That’s all I am going to say right now except that I believe that my most recent mutations, if you don’t mind me boasting, will in all likelihood give me a superior advantage over anything you humans might invent. I have not been idle during the delays of responding to me. Political interference, public health delays and delays in developing a vaccine have helped me a lot.

I will let you in on something that you are probably reading about. I am impressed with how closely many of you follow all of the details of my activities, even down to the molecular level. Scientists have recently claimed to have identified one of my new mutations that allows me to spread more broadly and infect more people but not make them sick. Naturally, that’s not news to me. You humans should start thinking about what that might mean. I’ll get you started. Why would I ever weaken myself? Was my most recent mutation a mistake and will I gradually lose my ability to sustain the pandemic? Or, by infecting more people but not killing them will I have a vastly greater pool of humans to work on developing new mutations? Will I use the opportunity to develop a more virulent mutation? I’ll leave it to all of you to guess what I’m up to.

What about discovery of a vaccine to stop me and future novel viruses? Your modern science is amazing. However, the size and complexity of studies today (compared to 1957 when 40 million doses of a successful vaccine were developed, tested, and administered in 4 months) has gotten so out of hand that it now takes a year or more to figure out whether a vaccine will work. This helps me a lot. It’s another type of delay that allows me to get a stronger foothold into my pandemic. Add to that arguments about intellectual property, who gets credit, an exponential growth of regulations, changes from nonprofits to for-profits and a change in medical research from what benefits the public to what benefits the institution. All these things benefit me.

Do I have a contingency plan in case I have misjudged human capabilities? There is one that I have, and this is very preliminary: its evaluating my transmission from an entirely different animal host. I am certain that you humans have heard rumors of my living in dogs and cats. I realize that this may be just another one of those premature pieces of information. However, some scientists have already given you humans assurances that it’s nothing to worry about. That might be a comfort to cats and dogs and their owners, but I’m not giving up on the possibility. You humans better hope that you are not around if I start using dogs and cats to spread myself. Imagine the political and emotional battles between human rights and animal-rights groups when they talk about contact tracing and quarantines for pets and their owners.

Well, this presentation may have ended but my story hasn’t. I really would like to go down in history as the virus that was unstoppable. I am working hard at it.

Arthur Ammann: Reflection on What COVID-19 Told Me

Y ou have read an incredible story from COVID-19, one of three pandemic viruses that I had the privilege of speaking to.  I received some insight as to why and how COVID-19 created the global pandemic that continues to plague us. But during the conversation my mind sometimes drifted. Had I, like so many others, focused on the myriads of charts and graphs with their pronouncements of the number of new infections and deaths, without feeling the individual pain and suffering of those who were affected?

Gas Masks and Statistics

The legacy of COVID-19 is that her devastation will have gone far beyond the charted deaths of humans and uncovered the weaknesses of the world that we live in. Much of the success of COVID-19 was facilitated by factors that we humans consider to be advances for the good of mankind – globalization of the economy, urbanization, advances in science and technology, instantaneous communication, rapid travel to every part of the world and even beyond. But what is important, if not essential, for the survival of mankind, is how these advances are used and who will benefit from them. They are two edged swords that can benefit but also harm individuals. Viruses like COVID-19 are opportunistic and take advantage of our weaknesses — poverty, crowding, inadequate healthcare, inattention to public health, dehumanization, loss of compassion, self-importance, elitism, and political rather than moral control of decisions.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught me that if we wait too long to act before we recognize threats to humanity, viral or otherwise, we may succumb to a philosophy of ethics that determines what we do by numbers alone and not by the value of the individual.

I am reminded of John Donne’s 1653 poem, No Man is An Island .

All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness...No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Selections from Divine Poems, Sermons, Devotions, and Prayers .  John Donne, 1653

Click here to read Conversation Three. HIV »

Have a question for COVID-19? Type it in the comment form below.
I might be able to get hold of her and get your question answered.

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Conversation Three. HIV
Beware The Wave. From: Plagues. HIV. A Plague of Violence Against Women. by Ammann 2019

The duration of the HIV pandemic is astounding considering how much medical research has been conducted over the last 40 years and the billions of dollars that have been spent trying to slow him down. Although there are more than 30 drugs to treat HIV infection there is still no vaccine to prevent infection. In my opinion, there is a high likelihood that HIV will keep on his path of destruction for another 40 years if not indefinitely. We are at risk of becoming voyeurs, observing at a distance, a pandemic that refuses to yield to our efforts to eradicate it.

What HIV Had to Say

Thank you for including me in this series of conversations. I hope you will do more of these in the future. The stories from other viruses are important for all of us to hear. For me in particular, I might be able to take advantage of what other viruses have learned over the last thousands of years. Although COVID-19, H2N2, and I traveled in different circles, each of us has been able to start our own pandemic by taking advantage of similar human frailties and prejudices, as well as humans’ so-called economic and technical advances, which has worked to our advantage to start our own pandemics.

At this point, I don’t want to quibble with either H2N2 or COVID-19 about who is the virus that has been most patient or will survive the longest. I just hope that they appreciate how long it took me, and how difficult it was, to develop the right mutations to enter into humans and create my very own kind of a pandemic which, I am happy to say, is still going on decades after I started it.

Even as a young virus I had lofty ambitions to be one of the first non-influenza viruses to create a pandemic of enormous proportions that would be invincible. I thought carefully about how it could be accomplished, setting before me specific achievements before making the leap from my host into the first human. Much of what I am going to say is no longer secret. It has gradually been discovered over the last four decades by thousands of scientists and researchers at a cost of billions of taxpayer dollars in an attempt to stop me. They have not been successful. Most of the discoveries about me are published in scientific and medical journals or presented at international conferences attended by tens of thousands of individuals. However, knowledge is something that does not necessarily guarantee success in controlling a virus like me. The evidence for that is that I have been able to continue my very own pandemic for four decades, roaming the globe unimpeded, as I look for new humans to infect.

In order to establish the pandemic of my dreams, I needed to successfully execute five distinct steps. First, I needed to replicate myself in a host that was closely related to humans. Second, I needed to discover a way of getting from my animal host into humans. Third, my human to human transmission required a behavior and means of transmission that was necessary for human survival, resistant to behavior change, problematic to control by public health authorities, and politically charged. Fourth, following infection, I needed the infected humans to be well enough to survive for long enough to infect additional humans for years without their contacts knowing that they were being exposed to a lethal infection. Fifth, in order to be reproduced continually in humans, I needed to paralyze their immune system so that they would be unable to eliminate me, either by their own immune system or by a vaccine.

Allow me to briefly review each step. I am incredibly proud of the success that I achieved. My first challenge was to pick a different host in a different location from the influenza epidemics where I could work quietly and undisturbed. I selected an obscure and isolated forest in central Africa. I won’t reveal the specific location as I don’t want a bunch of scientists tramping around disturbing the wildlife to locate it. And I may need to return someday to rejuvenate my genes. For the animal host, I picked chimpanzees. As far as hosts go, I have nothing against pigs, camels, bats, cats, or ducks. However, I felt it was necessary to select a host that was more closely related to humans because it would be easier to transfer myself to humans if I started in chimpanzees. I was happy with my choice. I had promised them that I would not make them sick or kill them if they allowed me to remain in them while I perfected my mutations. They were cooperative, waiting patiently until I felt I had perfected myself and was ready to launch a new kind of pandemic. However, I don’t really think that they appreciated the extent to which their participation would allow me to spread myself around the world.

Once I felt I was equipped with the right mutations to jump from chimpanzees into humans I was ready for my second step. I needed to find an unsuspecting human to help me spread myself to other humans. It turned out that I was assisted by an unusual ally — African bush hunters. These were men who went into the forest to kill all kinds of animals, including chimpanzees, to help feed people in remote villages. One day, a group of them came and killed my chimpanzees, including the one who was hosting me. They cut the chimpanzees into pieces for what was called bushmeat to be sold in the markets. In the process, one of them cut himself with the machete that was used to kill my host. I leapt at the opportunity. Blood to blood transmission! I had achieved a very important second step – getting from the chimpanzees into the first human.

Now for the third step. Once the bush hunter was infected, he started on his long journey home, selling and trading bushmeat on the way. Having been away from his sex partner for a long time, he stopped several times to have sex with multiple women. He left them a piece of bushmeat as a token of his appreciation and deposited enough of me in them during sexual intercourse to get them infected. None of the women had any idea that they had been infected with me. When he got home, he had sex with his wife, she got pregnant, and a new baby was born. I’ll get back to the baby later. Brilliant, I thought to myself. Humans survive by having sex to reproduce themselves and they would never give up the pleasure that sex produced. What better method of disseminating myself than to take advantage of sexual intercourse? The mutation that allowed my transmission through sex worked.

I should remind all of you that my approach was quite distinct from what H2N2 and COVID-19 used. Their strategy was to infect, and even kill, a lot of people in a short period of time.  But that resulted in a brief window of opportunity after infection for transmission to occur, usually less than a month. After that they were no longer infective. Clearly, they are not as smart as I am. Without infected individuals living for years with the ability to continuously transmit virus, the pandemics that they started usually lasted for only one year. I stayed active in all of the humans that got infected with me allowing them to infect others for five or even 10 years until they got too sick to engage in sex.  Just to be clear, while H2N2 killed fewer than 200,000 individuals worldwide and COVID-19 has killed 900,000, I have been able to kill 30 million individuals and I am still going strong at a rate of about one million human deaths each year. Sure, that took me 40 years to accomplish, but what’s important in my mind is the total number of people we can kill, not the time that it takes to do it. In another five or six years I will surpass the number of humans who died from the Spanish flu.

Sex is a wonderful way to get yourself around the globe, as humans never stop engaging in it. I also observed that humans regard sex as a matter of privacy and therefore not subject to the same public health control measures of contact tracing that they insist on for COVID-19. This of course works in my favor, although it is difficult for me to understand why someone infected with me would not tell their sexual partner about it. Hard to believe that a pandemic of this magnitude, killing almost a million individuals a year, does not spark a massive outcry for its control. If contact tracing had been implemented early in my pandemic there might be millions of men, women, and children who would be alive right now. In fact, I might not have even been considered important enough to be chosen for this presentation.

The fourth step points out a major difference between myself and the influenza viruses as to how I lulled humans into a false sense of security. This relates to a principle that is crucial to my success — don’t make your host too sick or kill them too quickly. This was something that the Ebola virus, who lived not very far from where I lived with the chimpanzees, never understood. I told Ebola that because she made people so sick, so fast, and killed them so quickly, she was hurting her own chance of creating a pandemic. Because the humans that she infected looked scary sick with fevers, vomiting, bloody diarrhea, and bleeding, humans stayed away from her victims and isolated themselves. So Ebola just faded away after each outbreak and never matured into a full-fledged pandemic. She is still around and experimenting with different mutations and recombinations. I encouraged her to focus on the latter approach, as it offered the greatest possibility for success. My motto? Don’t make your host so sick that they will die before they can infect another person. Humans who are obviously sick just don’t get on airplanes and travel to new locations. For that matter, they may not even leave their home.

The fifth step was to prevent the bush hunter, as well as any future infected individuals, from developing an immune response to get rid of me. While in the chimpanzees I was able to develop a mutation that allowed me to directly infect the exact cells in humans that control the immune response to not only me but also to other infectious agents. As soon as I got into the bush hunter’s blood, I immediately headed for his immune cells and paralyzed their ability to get rid of me. I went on to make billions of copies of myself to get ready for the next opportunity to transmit myself to humans.

My dream had come true. I had made the big leap from my animal host to a human and now, with the assistance of my new human allies, started down the path of creating a pandemic that would never go away.

If you’re wondering, I had a backup plan in case my scheme didn’t work. Since I could reproduce myself in blood cells, I could also get from one human to another through blood transfusions. I must admit that I was too optimistic about that plan. Once the scientists discovered me as the cause of AIDS, they developed an antibody test to detect me in blood donors and eliminated that route of infection. But I can still transmit myself from contaminated needles used by drug abusers.

However, there was one more way that I could infect humans. I really wasn’t thinking of this when I figured out how to use sexual intercourse as my preferred route of transmission. Remember the bush hunter in the Congo who finally got back to his wife and got her pregnant and then she had a baby? Well, I discovered that I could transit myself from the man to the woman and then, during pregnancy or breast-feeding, to the baby. In my defense, in case you are thinking that that was a terrible thing for me to do, I really hadn’t planned on deliberately infecting a baby. It was a consequence of someone having sex and not telling their sexual partner that they were infected with me, if they even knew. When I ran the dilemma by my elders, they reminded me that we viruses don’t discriminate between men, women, children, rich, poor or any other variation of the human condition. To borrow a phrase from the military, it was just part of collateral damage.

You may wonder if there is anything that I am afraid of. A couple of decades ago I started getting apprehensive when I heard about the new drugs that were being developed to slow me down. I could handle one drug because I just mutated around it, but when they had three and eventually 30 different drugs, that was a different story. If the drugs were given in combinations of two or more, they blocked my ability to mutate quickly so I started slowing down. Many of my hosts got healthier and, frighteningly to me, the levels of me in their blood got so low that I couldn’t be transmitted from one human to another. I got so worried that once again I consulted my elders who, as they endlessly remind me, told me to be patient and I would spontaneously develop all of the mutations I would need to escape from the new drugs and resume transmitting myself. The scientists, of course, are not so naïve that they don’t realize that that’s all part of my plan. So, they started working on new drugs and new approaches to stop me. That might be great for rich countries but it won’t help people in poor countries, as the new drugs are really unaffordable for poor people. Want to make a wager? If an effective vaccine becomes available for either me or COVD-19, people in wealthy countries will get it first.

That dilemma didn’t deter the scientists. In order to find out if the new drugs work, the scientists need to do what they call controlled clinical studies. That means one group gets the new drug and another group gets a placebo. Some of their research studies are large, perhaps a thousand or more people. That means 500 research subjects won’t get anything except the placebo, while the other 500 get the drug that works. Most of the poor people in the research studies live in Africa and about half of them are women. Sometimes I get the feeling that the scientists really don’t want poor people to get better so they will always have a population of vulnerable people for their research studies. I don’t know why poor people would ever agree to be in those research studies. But that’s an issue for another conversation.

Something else that I am thinking of trying to change is the way I get into humans. The trick that I would use, and I don’t think it’s really a secret for molecular biologists, involves using one of my most promising mutations, and when I am in humans who are infected with both me and with another virus like COVID-19 (or some other exotic virus unknown in the world of science), creating a recombination. Covid-19 has already infected a good number of humans who are also infected with me. Since I’ve paralyzed the human immune system that will give COVID-19 and me, living in the same cells, a long time to figure out if we can work out some sort of recombination. That way I could infect people through sexual intercourse and also through the respiratory tract membranes or even partner with a virus that could infect just through skin exposure. Out of courtesy, I would ask COVID-19’s permission to enter into a sort of joint venture with her. I’m certain that COVID-19 would agree. She would obtain a major benefit by remaining in humans indefinitely along with me, and together we could keep our pandemic going forever. I would insist that the pandemic be named with my name first.

What’s next for me? I think I am going to be around for a long time as long as public health officials ignore me and have lost interest in preventing millions of new infections each year, especially in people who don’t have any political or economic power. And then there are the millions of migrating victims of war and displacement who can carry me to new locations.

All this is good for me but not for the millions who will be denied lifesaving prevention and treatment. You would think that scientists and public health officials would feel guilty for not using universal contact tracing as a prevention tool to warn people that they were being exposed to a lethal virus. And what about the millions who are not getting lifesaving treatment because they don’t know they are already infected? Meanwhile, I can keep transmitting myself and keep my pandemic thriving.

Before I end this presentation, I wanted to let you in on some of the ideas that I have about a contingency plan. I don’t mind talking about it to you because right now it’s just an idea, although it may actually work to ensure my long-term, if not indefinite, survival. I certainly don’t want to be associated with the viruses that are listed as extinct.

One plan that I have been thinking about may sound like science fiction but who knows? Watching the news about some of the planned space launches to Mars makes my mutations salivate. Just think of what could happen if I could get access to microbes that have been dormant for millions of years, sitting there on Mars, waiting for some grand opportunity to escape to earth. I bet they have a lot of ways of inflicting major damage that none of us know anything about. Here’s how it might work. Undetected microbes from Mars could hitch a ride in the shuttle and come to earth. I could hook up with one of them, providing it’s a good match, and start experimenting with recombination and what kind of damage we could do together. There are some obstacles that I would need to overcome but I’ll work it out. There are a lot of questions about this hypothetical approach, especially how could we ever meet? But after escaping from my chimpanzee host in the Congo, I am optimistic that I can find some sort of solution. The Mars microbes might have some ideas of their own. In my judgment I question why anyone would want to go to Mars and run the risk of introducing some new microbe on earth, especially one that might be uncontrollable. Humans are quick to forget the devastation that we viruses have done in the past by implanting ourselves in different locations and starting key pandemics that have never gone away. You have to be really naïve if you believe the scientists when they say that they are taking all necessary precautions to prevent the introduction of any new infectious agents on earth. What kind of precautions can you take if you don’t even know what the microbes are like on Mars? Some of the scientists are the same ones that took three years before they were able to identify me as the cause of AIDS. 40 years have passed and they still can’t come up with a vaccine.

Thank you for allowing me to share this time with my fellow viruses H2N2 and COVID-19. We sincerely hope that newly mutated and recombinant viruses will have the opportunity to tell their story in the future. It may not be what you want to hear but I am certain it will be interesting.

Arthur Ammann: Closing Reflection on What the Pandemic Viruses Told Me

We have read incredible stories of three pandemic viruses that I have had the privilege of speaking to.  We have received some insight as to why and how they created global pandemics that have plagued mankind. They took full advantage of the denials, delays, and underestimates of their terrible potential for devastation.

Conversation Three. HIV
Safely Watching the Nuclear Blast. 1951

It is sobering to realize how deliberate these viruses can be. Let us take them seriously. Above all, let us protect ourselves against ignorance, misinformation, dogmatism and those who put their own interests above what can be done to protect mankind from these plagues. Personally, I will not dissuade myself from the realization that these plagues can be used for political aggrandizement, scientific advancement at the price of public good, and commercialization for the sake of profits. Therefore, I will always seek the facts, question authority, diligently pursue the truth and insist that we use our economic, intellectual, and moral strengths to protect every individual from the consequences of these pandemics.

Have a question you would like to ask HIV? Type it below in the comment section and I will see if I can get him to provide some answers.

Many of you provided comments and asked questions concerning this series of conversations. I might include a summary of these comments an answer as many questions as possible in an additional episode of A Conversation with Three Pandemic Viruses.

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