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.
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.